It is Sunday morning before we head back to school from our February break. I know students and teachers alike are fighting that knot in our bellies as we gear up for Monday morning. I am choosing this moment to reflect back on a day last month where I and my colleague had the incredible opportunity to take a group of 21 (we had 22 but one sprained her ankle the night before our trip) students along with a couple of parents to volunteer at the St. John's/St.Ann's Outreach Center to serve lunch.
We gathered at the front entrance to wait for our bus. I used it as a photo op before we headed out. You can see the excitement on each of my 7th graders' faces. Only two in our group had volunteered here before, so we were all looking forward to see what we had in store for us. I should mention that spots for this trip filled up quickly. I had to turn away students who wanted to volunteer.
We headed into the building bringing with us additional donations of hats, gloves and blankets. One of our parents had offered these items, which were collected via a Red Cross drive. We were so happy to be able to not only donate our time but items that are necessary during any northeast winter.
The board announced our arrival, so I quickly grabbed Sreehitha and Nicaya, our two veteran volunteers, for our photo. These two were so excited to be returning to serve lunch. They kept telling about how amazing the people are and how much fun it was to talk and get to know them. Their enthusiasm made us all feel at home at St. John's.
And then there was Cookie. Gloria Towle-Hilt is a retired FMS teacher who started these trips to the soup kitchen to volunteer. She now serves on the GCSD BOE. She greeted us all and gave us some background on the program. I was blown away to learn that FMS has been bringing students to volunteer for 25 years! I think we all felt very proud to say that we were now part of that history.
We got right to work. In preparation for the 200 people we would be serving, we were quickly shown how to set up each table.
Each table needed placemats, condiments, and a centerpiece. Cookie reminded us again and again that the main goal was to make the diners feel welcome. They try to make the experience that of a real restaurant: something the diners aren't able to afford.
As the final touches were put on each table, I looked around and was so impressed with how serious the kids were taking the work. Even being here for 20 minutes, they took ownership over each task and wanted to do their very best.
We sat down once the tables were set up so Cookie could explain how the various responsibilities while serving. She is joined in this photo with Chris the chef from Druthers Restaurant. Druthers has committed to donate the meal to St. John's whenever FMS students are volunteering to serve. Another very proud moment!
As Cookie spoke, she stressed again the importance of making the diners feel welcome. Our number one job was simply to smile. Looking at my kids and the grins they already had, I knew they would not let her down!
Next we determined partners for serving each of the 10 tables, who would dish out food and who would clean tables as new diners arrived. I think everyone was happy with their jobs. And while everyone didn't get the partner they asked for, I used it as an opportunity to remind the kids that today is not about us. Not to mention it gave them a chance to make a new friend.
Natalie and Jayden did a great job manning the salad station. They made sure salad bowls were ready to be served so that no one had to wait.
We were very lucky to have two parents volunteering with us as well! Mrs. Clancy and Mrs. DiCaprio plated the main course. It was all hands on deck.
We were so moved by all the different people and stories that we heard during our time serving. One image that struck many of us were the diners who carried all of their belongings with them (as seen in this photo). It made real for us the struggle of the homeless. Each one of us felt humbled and knew that we all have so much to be grateful for.
This woman, who I will refer to as Z, was in awe of her servers Shannon and Camila. She made sure to call me over to say how impressed she was by these two young women. Z shared her own story: how she had been homeless for many months, how she was fighting to gain custody of her younger brother after losing her mother, and her dreams of starting an organization to help those in need. She wanted to be able to use her own story to make a difference in the lives of others. So inspiring!
As our diners became fewer and fewer, we began the process of cleaning up and breaking down tables. Our students continued to work diligently. Their smiles, too, remained (as seen in this photo of Meghan), and we all felt a kinship in our work. A bond had been formed through our time serving together. We all knew this had been a special day.
Mrs. Sittig and I are joined here with Cookie as we thanked her again for the experience she gave not only our students but us as well. On the bus ride home, I quickly emailed the Community Service Club supervisor, Mrs. Cahill, to let her know that we had a wonderful day...and to ask when our team could volunteer again. For I know that these are the experiences that keep us coming back each day to teach. While it is great to share novels with kids and encourage them as writers, being able to give them a day like this one is so powerful. I wish that we made it more of a priority in public schools to not just share knowledge but to give kids experience in the world, especially places that are outside of their day-to-day lives. I am very grateful for days like this one and will make it a priority to seek out more ways to carve out time to enrich my students' lives.
Don't take my word for it! Check out these blog posts by some of our students who volunteered: