Think of a soup kitchen volunteer and your first image may be one of the many goodhearted people serving meals on the food line. But a lot goes in to serving about 1000 New Yorkers who come here for daily meal as well as emotional and practical support. The 50 to 60 volunteers who sign in each morning report to different assignments and stations that includes our social services program where volunteer advisers offer encouragement and essential resources that help our guests move forward and find hope. Elizabeth, who runs her own fashion pr company when she’s not volunteering, is one of these advisers, and one who has taken the meaning of soup kitchen volunteer to a whole new level.
“I have a lot of energy and I need to give away that energy,” she says.
Before volunteering at the soup kitchen Elizabeth had been volunteering as a one-to-one companion with an elderly woman and when that situation changed, Elizabeth immediately looked around for a new way to give back. “Since I live about eight blocks away I would ride my bike past the soup kitchen and see the line, and I thought to myself, ‘I’m sure there’s a need there.'” Sure enough, when she stepped foot in the soup kitchen in February of 2015 for the first time, she was given a job right away, starting with a few weeks on the food line and busing tables before dedicating one day each week in our social services program.
“I’m a ‘people person’,” Elizabeth says, “And the people here have a kaleidoscope of needs.” When she spent her first day listening to the range of needs our guests told her about, our social services manager said, “Wow! We’ll keep you here!” and Elizabeth knew she had found the right match for her own volunteer goals.
For Elizabeth, it means a lot to not only offer a compassionate ear as she listens to our guests’ stories, but also to guide them toward practical solutions for their individual needs, solutions that range in urgency from hair cut vouchers to shelter referrals. While she has helps many hundreds of guests to date, she keeps every session personalized because, she says,”Even making a difference to just one person makes it all worthwhile. That’s all you need to try to do – help one person.”
It wasn’t long after Elizabeth volunteered weekly that she was eager to think about new ways to support our guests. Most recently, using her knowledge of the fashion industry, she decided she would reach out to apparel companies for sock donations — a vital resource especially for our homeless guests who face severe health issues without clean socks. When she didn’t hear back from any of her established contacts she read about Bombas, an innovative and socially responsible sock company that donates a pair of socks to the homeless for every pair that’s purchased. After a swift response to her inquiry, Bombas worked with her to organize not only a group volunteer day, but the donation and distribution of 1200 new pairs of socks to our guests.
This above-and-beyond project is only one of many actions Elizabeth takes to bring more comfort to our guests’ everyday lives. She’s recently added a second day to her busy busy schedule when she brings her therapy dog, Jasper, to our courtyard to meet and greet our guests after their meal. This gentle giant offers our homeless guests a respite of love and acceptance from the isolation they experience even on the most crowded city streets and subways trains.And for those who have a place to spend their nights but who are struggling with the stress that comes with poverty, the chance to play and connect with Jasper can be a gift of joy that lightens their day.
For all the work Elizabeth has done to go out of her way to make our guests’ days better, she does remember when a guest went out of his way to come back and thank her after they she had spent time advising him with practical resources and referrals. “He came back up after he ate on his way out, and said that it just meant a lot to him… all the things we do,” she recalls. “It made my day!”