Life never ceases to amaze me. In my long years of living, I’ve learned that gratitude often emerges in the least likely of places.
My wife and I were asked to volunteer one evening a month at a local food pantry near downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia. The Friendly City is home to 55,000 people in the center of the Shenandoah Valley. The pantry operates once a week, providing foodstuffs for those who don’t have enough income even to buy basic grocery necessities.
Participants are only permitted to visit the food pantry once per month. Individual records are kept to ensure the rules are followed. That has never been a problem, however.
The pantry receives its supplies from two sources. A regional food bank provides federal government USDA commodities, while local supermarkets, restaurants, and farmers donate their surplus food to the pantry. A few farmers even grow extra produce to help supply in-season fresh foods.
Those who depend on the food pantry for their sustenance must qualify by income for the USDA items. Pantry participants receive the locally provided food without qualification. The pantry offers a few healthcare products, too.
Neva and I have settled into our roles of interviewers. Our job has multiple responsibilities. We have to ask many invasive, personal questions before we can check off the USDA food preference list with the clients. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to write down $0 for a monthly income. It’s a humbling experience both for the clients and us.
With all the “workers wanted” signs around, a logical question might be, “Why don’t these people get a job?” The answer to this question is two-fold. Many of the clients do have jobs. Their meager incomes and family sizes qualify them for the federal subsidies.
From my observations and interactions, those who receive aid and don’t work are not employable for a host of obvious reasons. Some stay at home with small children. Some are senior citizens whose productive working days are long past. Some are disabled with no financial support of any kind. You get the picture.
Amid the discomfiting officiousness, one quality consistently shines from month to month, person to person. Everyone we encounter expresses gratitude for any help provided. Some are effusive while others say a quiet thank you.
As humbling and perhaps even embarrassing as the experience is for the clients, they are all thankful. Without being prompted, a few share heartbreak stories with us. They seem glad to have someone with whom to converse. We listen intently and thank them for sharing. A hardy handshake sometimes ensues.
I have yet to meet anyone who feels entitled to this food. Just the opposite is true. The clients’ glow of exuberant gratitude outshines any hint of disparity.
The joyous expressions and cheery thankfulness for whatever assistance they receive more than reward us for our collective efforts. Every client is especially appreciative if the list indeed includes healthcare items like diapers, shampoo, or toothpaste.
It takes courage to admit you need help. But if your child is hungry and the cupboard is bare, courtesy, gratitude, and thankfulness vanquish pride.
A disconcerting trend has developed, however. Each time we serve at the food pantry the number of clients tends to increase. Nevertheless, humility, smiles, and expressions of relief also grow exponentially.
Who would have thought that we would find and receive abundant gratitude from those who can’t afford daily food? Who would have imagined that serving in such a manner would reward us with humankind’s most heartfelt thanks?