17 December 2008

Charity Work

I had a bit of an adventure yesterday. During the holidays, you hear a lot of encouragement to help out with local charities. Some families make a yearly donation of money, food, or goods, or they actually go to a soup kitchen and help serve a meal. I've always thought this was a great idea, especially if you do it as a family. Right now I'm sure you're thinking that we must have done some helping of the poor yesterday. Well, you'd be wrong. My adventure was to be on the receiving end of said charity.

Basically we ran out of food and money. I only work part-time so that I can homeschool our son, but my meager income is the only guaranteed money that we have. The rest has to come from my husband, who does contract work. This fall, his major long-term agreement of trimming trees for a home owner's association was canceled because they decided to try and save money and get the actual neighborhood home owners to do it on a volunteer basis. We were counting on this money, and it was gone. We've been able to scrape by pretty well with his other much smaller jobs since this happened in August, all the while expecting the HOA to figure out that they weren't going to get anyone to volunteer, but somehow it just wasn't happening this month.

On Monday evening, I used the last of the frozen chicken we had, steamed the last handful of baby carrots and made the last box of macaroni and cheese. Once I did this, all we had in the cupboard was a pint of milk, some rice, a couple of packages of ramen, and peanut butter. Oh, and some stale cereal. As far as staples, we had a little flour and sugar left at the bottom of the canister, but no eggs, no bread, no cheese, no meat or vegetables of any kind. And we had $27 to last until the day after Christmas with low gas in both vehicles. I was a little stressed.

I remembered several years ago when we had been in a similar financial situation and I had gotten a sack of groceries from a nearby church. It wasn't the greatest of food, but it was something. So yesterday morning I called 211 (after looking it up online to make sure that I remembered right.) For those of you who don't know, 211 is like 911 for emergency human services. I told the operator my ZIP code and my need, food. She gave me a list of charities in my city with hours, addresses and phone numbers. I called them all to get further information about requirements. One required recent pay stubs, proof of residency, birth certificates and an interview, so I chose to not use that one as I didn't want to dig in the file cabinet. Or in the pile waiting to be put into the file cabinet... One told me that they had very little food available right now. One is only open two days a week at 8:30 AM, and you'd better come get in line at 8:00. But the other two seemed a little more accessible.

The first that I went to was the city charity. I was told that you can only receive food assistance once every two months. Fair enough. I did have to prove who I had in my household and fill out a form, but overall it was fairly simple. They gave me three paper bags filled with groceries, and I got to choose from a giant selection of day old bread. You know all those fancy artisan breads at the store that cost $4 and up? I guess they don't sell them all because that was mostly what was there. I got some wonderful oatmeal bread, a loaf a store bakery unsliced white bread, some rosemary and olive oil bread, some ciabatta rolls, a 4-pack of cream cheeses muffins and half an apple pie. In the sacks were some canned vegetables (expected), but also 2 boxes of spaghetti and three cans of spaghetti sauce, tomato soup (Campbell's, no less) and chicken noodle soup, pork and beans, canned diced tomatoes, canned black-eyed peas, real Spaghettio's, canned spaghetti and meatballs, ramen noodles, rice-a-roni and macaroni & cheese, dried pinto beans, packets of ranch dressing and turkey gravy mix, Manwich (with nothing to mix it with...) four apples, some fresh carrots, a box of cereal, a jar of peanut butter, a bag of frozen chicken nuggets, and a whole frozen chicken. I had tears in my eyes as I thanked them and took the groceries to my car. Who knew just being given food, such a basic necessity, would be so emotional.

Next I went to the mission. This is run by the large church downtown and takes up several city blocks. They run not just a food bank, but also a clothing bank, a night shelter, a day shelter, a free clinic, a small church, and a free Christmas store. Here I also had to fill out a form and talk to a worker about our situation. She pressed me for anything else I needed besides food. I had overheard someone else talking about needing kitchen things like a toaster and a blender. She prayed a very nice prayer for my family's financial situation to improve. I also had to answer creatively when she asked if I went to church or if I was a Christian - I didn't want to offend anyone. Here I got two plastic bags of groceries. One had bread - the same types as the other place, but I got different kinds here (two whole-grain artisan loaves, a loaf of sourdough and a small baguette.) There were canned goods in the other bag, two large cans of chicken, a can of turkey gravy, some more vegetables (including the kind we usually buy), a jar of peanut butter, cream of chicken soup, generic spaghettio's, canned fruit salad, more ramen and mac & cheese, and albacore tuna.

So now we have enough food for a few days. I'm going to freeze about half the bread to use later - there's no way we can eat all that bread before it goes bad no matter how good it is. We'll parcel out the $27 to get just enough gas (it's only $1.39 right now!)and some supplemental foods items like more milk. We'll be eating a lot at other people's houses next week for holiday gatherings, so we should be able to make it alright to next Friday's paycheck.

The moral of the story? It can happen to anyone, and charity does work. After seeing up close everyone being helped, I'll be donating more often now myself. In the past I have only done so when it was convenient, but people need help all the time. Not just when it's convenient, and not just during the holidays.

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