by Angelina Cahalan
Volunteers in St. Anthony Dining Room play three major roles: working on the serving line, serving trays to guests and bussing tables. Most people’s favorite tasks are the first giving people food which is much more “glamorous” than cleaning up finished trays and sponging down tables. I on the other hand prefer to bus. It is a little more slow paced and allows this extrovert to chat and visit with the guests. Every once in a while we are short on volunteers and some of us staff get to get away from our desks and spend some time helping in the Dining Room. It’s always fun and many of our guests get a kick out of seeing us out of our usual role and in aprons and hair nets and have fun teasing us.
Last week I had an opportunity to serve in the Dining Room and as usual I jumped into my role as a busser. Volunteers who bus know that quite often guests at the table may ask for the uneaten bread or dessert or fruit on the tray before it is taken away. Over the years I’ve gotten into the habit of offering items to people before I put it into my collection bucket. The usual responses are “No thank you” or “I’ll take it!”. Last week I had a new response when I offered. The woman across from me looked me straight in the eye and said, “Don’t offer us garbage!” I told her that I only offer because so often people ask. She gave me her explanation, “If people ask then give it to them. But that is someone else’s leftovers, so don’t offer us garbage.” I apologized for offending her and returned to my work trying to hide my feelings of sadness and conflict.
This really made me step back and think. When we orient the volunteer groups we put a huge emphasis on dignity and respect. What does this mean, why is it so important at St. Anthony’s and why it is so important for them to act in this manner as volunteers. I felt I was being so kind and respectful in offering people more food and helping ensure that food didn’t get wasted. My offer to this woman was the complete opposite of respectful for her and she had an excellent and valid point. She made me think not just from the perspective of what is dignity and respect from a volunteer/staff perspective, but truly what does that mean from our guest’s perspective.
I’m still grappling over whether I will still offer people the extra food next time I am bussing. In my experience most people have appreciated it; but how many feel the same as this woman and don’t speak up? I am proud of this woman for speaking up for herself and thankful to her for pushing me out of my comfort zone and challenging me to think deeper about these issues that I talk to volunteers about every day.