So it was Christmas time, and I had wanted to volunteer. Unfortunately, to my surprise, all the soup kitchens were closed on Christmas Day. So I had told my girlfriend that we needed to go on another day. We chose the last Saturday of January 2012.
I chose St. Joseph’s Soup Kitchen because of Steve Fanto, the volunteer coordinator at St. Joseph’s, was the only person who got back to me during the holidays. Steve encouraged me to come any Saturday to help. He was funny but a little skeptical over the phone that we would come by on another day. I could see why Steve was skeptical, considering that so many people get out for the holidays, but few show up on the other days of the year. He also explained that St. Joseph’s was only open on Saturday.
We arrived a little after 10 am. Steve was grateful that we had come to pitch in. He oriented us with the environment and introduced us to the other volunteers.
The other volunteers were already working diligently on preparing the food to be served to the homeless when we arrived. There were many jobs to be had. First, we set up pans for roasting vegetables. We then moved on to cutting up fresh mushrooms. Everyone was in good spirits. I found myself surrounded by warm and caring individuals like our fellow mushroom cutter, Mogan, who talked about some of the other places he had volunteered. He had been coming pretty regularly to St. Joseph’s for about three months to help out in the mornings. He was a bright young software developer that talked about exploring social media and apps to expand his capabilities.
Once finished with the mushrooms, we have whisked away to the grocery store with Steve and three boys from The Buckley School. The kids told us that they were there at the soup kitchen for a school project with their teacher. As we walked out the door, a gentleman jumped out of a cab in front of the church at the corner of Washington Place and 6th Avenue. He had collected food from some local stores and brought them to the soup kitchen.
Steve explained on the way to the grocery store that the man from the cab took 45 minutes to an hour each week to collect the food and bring it down to the church every Saturday. He also said the entire soup kitchen happened as a result of donations: from the church. The church provided the basement to the food being given to them to the people who prepared it and the people who served it and cleaned up.
We picked up much-needed supplies including bags of ice and butter for the bread being served. Steve did an excellent job of directing us and herding us all back together at the cash register so we could all grab something to carry back. Volunteering seemed second nature to Steve.
During our walk back, Steve explained that he had been a financial analyst for several years before working in a paid job coordinating volunteers and running another soup kitchen. He said that soup kitchen recently closed, so he has continued to work at the St. Joseph’s soup kitchen as a volunteer, coordinating other volunteers. So, he could continue to do what he loved and help others to find fulfillment in helping others.
Upon our return, the other volunteers were doing everything from cooking in the kitchen to rolling up napkins and forks. We were asked to go through bags of clothes and organize them. As we began, Steve informed me that he want this experience to be welcoming and comforting for our guests. He informed me that we were creating a store for the homeless to go through and take when they arrived. We sorted the shirts, sweaters, pants, underwear and other items into piles to make it easier to sift through.
Since I had volunteered before, I knew how to prepare for my diabetes. I reduced my Lantus due to the extra physical labor I wouldn’t normally be doing on a Saturday. I didn’t notice how much lifting and walking to the grocery store I was doing. Before I knew it, I was having a low blood sugar reaction. I told Steve I was diabetic and that I was having a reaction. I asked if he could open the closet where I had left my bag, and he said no problem.
After I had verified my low blood sugar, I took two packets of honey and ate a Tootsie Pop(R). I sat down and Steve asked if I needed some juice. I agreed that it wouldn’t hurt, and he said that I could grab anything I needed during the day. He brought me some lemonade, my favorite. I made sure that I had a glass of lemonade around me the rest of the day.
Once we finished the clothing, Steve asked if we would be willing to stay for the afternoon shift to help serve the food to those who came to eat at the soup kitchen. Our original plan had been to only work the morning shift. We decided to stay for the second shift, so Steve suggested that we take a break and get a bite to eat.
When we got back, Steve had stepped out for lunch as well and hadn’t returned yet. We waited all of a few seconds when Gil, who had been chosen to lead the afternoon shift, came up and asked if he could help.
The afternoon shift was a lot more physical. I was on the food service line, making trays of food filled with chicken jambalaya, fresh salad, fruit cup, bread and butter, a donut and lemonade, coffee or milk. In the short 90 minutes that the soup kitchen was open, 512 meals were served. What an incredible day!
During that time, I was moved from station to station as needed. I had brought water to drink but decided to drink the lemonade instead. I am proud to say it worked perfectly. I checked my blood sugar at 3 pm and 3 cups of lemonade later it was 85 ml/dL.
When 3 o’clock came around, we were exhausted. It is such a good feeling to help others. We found Steve and thanked him for a great experience. He asked us to come back, and we said we would.
One thing I have found over the years is that giving to others makes you feel better. If you are one of those individuals who look at something and say “what’s in it for me,” I would only say you never know who will help you in the future. It could be the very person you are preparing that meal for or someone you meet along the way might know. And yes, you’ll also get a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart and soul. One last piece of knowledge that I have found to be true throughout my journey in life so far is that givers gain.
My clinical recommendation is for everyone to volunteer at least once, whether it is for diabetes or a soup kitchen. It will help you grow as an individual and as a human being.
Eliot LeBow, LCSW, CDE, is a diabetes-focused psychotherapist. His private practice, located in New York City and is also available via Skype. LeBow, who has been living with type 1 diabetes since 1977, treats the many diverse cognitive, behavioral, and emotional needs of people living with type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
All the advice included in this blog is therapeutic in nature and should not be considered medical advice. Before making any changes to your diabetes maintenance program, please consult with your primary physician or endocrinologist.