I recently started a volunteer placement at a large food bank in Toronto. It was a requirement of a course I’m taking and, to tell you the truth, I was dreading it. I’m so busy, and this just seemed like one more thing that I needed to do before the end of the term.
My first day at the food bank was uncomfortable to say the least. I spent four hours sorting through 5,000 rotten carrots with a group of people who, well, they scared me. Most of the volunteers were working for their lunch ticket and many of them were, to put it bluntly, filthy.
This was my first impression. I knew I had to put in my hours and I just kept thinking it’s almost over…don’t make eye contact. I know this is horrible, but it’s the truth.
A funny thing happened though. By the end of my four-hour shift, I stopped caring about the fact that the man sitting next to me smelt like he had bathed in rum, because all I could smell was rotting carrots. I looked around at all of us hunched over, sorting carrots in our plastic aprons and hair nets and we all looked the same. It was also at this point that it occurred to me that in this state all covered in rotten carrots, that others might be thinking the same thing about me as I was about them.
This menial labour that I perform at the food bank is humbling. This is not a service role. I am not interacting with patrons of the on-site soup kitchen. Instead, I am sorting rotten carrots, scooping powdered milk from 10-kg sacks into 1 cup size portions, and washing mountains of dishes with an industrial dishwasher. This is demeaning and mind numbing work and the more I do it, the more I lose my identity.
I forget who I am. At the food bank I’m not a privileged white woman attending post secondary school. There, I am just another one of the hundreds that filter through the doors looking for a hot meal.
When I first started at the food bank I felt that I was different, that I shouldn’t have to wait in line to register for the day with the drunks and addicts. I was a student of the University of Toronto. I was here to help them. By the end of my first shift, my perspective had changed.
I am experiencing only a sliver of what some of those that I work with are dealing with…mental health issues, addiction, starvation, depression, and loneliness.
This experience has widened my vision of not only local poverty, but has also opened my eyes to what it must be like to work for little to no pay. I can see how in some countries millions of oppressed people do not rise up to improve their situation, no matter how bad it is. The loss of identity that I have experienced is only a taste of what it must be like to labour in a developing country.
One of my professors recently lectured on a similar topic. Starting an experience in which you hope to glean some new view on a social problem must start at the level of participation. Serving and attempting to better a social issue from the outside is simply not very effective. We must immerse ourselves in the life of those we wish to help. We must fully understand their perspective and only then can we start to aid these people in bettering their own lives and their country’s institutional structures that are causing oppression.
U of T has many opportunities for community placements in environments where you can gain new perspectives. Here’s a short list of the ones I’m familiar with:
1. The Community Services Page has posting of volunteer opportunities.
2. If you’re in Arts & Science, check with your college. Many of our colleges offer volunteer opportunities where you’ll be able to volunteer with fellow students.
3. The Centre For Community Partnerships is also a great resource for finding meaningful volunteer opportunities.
4. Intercordia is a program in which you receive a full course credit. The program consists of an in-class component and an overseas summer placement with an NGO doing work in an impoverished community. I’ve heard great things about this opportunity…life changing things!
My volunteer placement has forced me to face the prejudices I held for those who are on the margins of the city we live in. I’m not sure if it will stick with me when I’m finished my placement, but I really hope that I don’t forget the loss of identity that I feel when I’m knee deep in rotten carrots. I feel humbled. It’s not the first time I’ve felt this way, but it is the most powerful humbling I’ve ever experienced.
It’s so hard for those of use who have family, friends, a home, food, and clothing to really understand what it feels like to truly be poor, but offering your time in a community placement might open your eyes to new perspectives on the world we live in.