This was Johnny Moran’s first experience helping out & he learned a lot.
Each year, NRS works with our restaurant partners, organizations like Cubs Charities, and Cubs staff volunteers host a holiday dinner for homeless youth who occupy shelters throughout Chicago. However, this was my first experience helping out, and I was a little nervous about the evening.
What if we run out of food? What if the food doesn’t arrive on time? Will we have enough space to accommodate all of our guests?
My worries were soon replaced with a lot of work.
Gordon Vance, our director of programs, takes a lot of pride in managing this event. He sees this not only as a way to give back, but also a way to connect with youth that we typically do not see in the flesh. Our services are available over the phone or the internet, to help young people develop a plan of action and connect them to facilities and personnel that can provide help. We do not offer in-person assistance. But, this dinner allows our staff and volunteers a view into the homeless youth experience.
He also does a large amount of work organizing the supplies, volunteers and the location for the dinner. We started our day by gathering all of the necessary materials, everything from cooking utensils to the care packages created by the volunteers from our friends at Chicago Cares. Packages included tooth brushes, soap, a towel and other items.
We had quite the load to deliver to St. Luke’s Church, which has hosted our dinner for several years. We filled a rental van and Gordon’s car with supplies. Luckily, for us, St. Luke’s is located half a block from our offices, so we did not have far to go.
We arrived and then carried our supplies into the auditorium. It is a modernized, hospitable space that reminded me of the Catholic grade schools I frequented as a kid. The kitchen staff was available to help, directing us to where pots, pans and pot holders could be found. They were helpful and patient, dealing with our volunteers and our needs. We could not have delivered this community meal without their help.
While Gordon and I were in charge of prepping the meal, our staff as well the great volunteers from Cubs Charities prepared the room. Tables were set up with tablecloths, flatware, centerpieces and decorations. The care packages were arranged and a photo booth was set up so our guests could have a little fun. A buffet line, with hot dishes and plates, was set up. My worries were starting to ease as we got closer to being fully prepared.
The guests began to arrive, coming from shelters including The Night Ministry, La Casa Norte, The Harbour, Anne’s House, and The Thresholds. My role in the kitchen then became that of a “traffic cop,” directing volunteers to spots where they were needed, replenishing food between the kitchen and our buffet line.
We had some very special guests who addressed the room. Father Abrahamson, the pastor of the church, offered a blessing. We also heard from one of Chicago’s aldermen, Tom Tunney, a staunch supporter of NRS.
I was assisted by some truly amazing high school kids. I asked Janice, a junior at Whitney Young, about why she was volunteering with Cubs Charities. She explained that she enjoyed volunteering and does so often. She sees it as a way to give back, and also will help her get into a college of her choice, such as Spelman or Howard University. She told me how she wants to study political science, and then get into the nonprofit industry either on the East Coast or the Western United States. She is a special person. I hope that she reaches her goals for the future.
Her friends, as well as the Cubs employees, were just as helpful, asking how they could help, and dutifully taking direction. They took initiative and helped prepare salads, desserts, and manned stations on the buffet.
I have also worked in the food service industry for the majority of my life, so I found myself slipping into the “expeditor” role, moving food quickly and keeping my communication to a professional, sharp point:
“Turkey is ready,” “Fresh utensils, please,” “Can I get refreshed fruit for the buffet, please.”
Everyone worked well together. And more importantly, our guests were enjoying the meal. I was most impressed by their positive attitudes. I think I came into the event with a belief that the youth experiencing homelessness we would be serving would be glum or embarrassed for their circumstances. Instead, I saw a lot of smiling faces. I saw kindness and gratitude. I heard good humor and boisterous conversation. I saw people.
As they continued to enjoy their meals, we in the kitchen set about cleaning up. The kitchen staff was kind enough to direct us to the dishwashing section, and the Cubs’ volunteers spent a good amount of time and elbow grease scrubbing and cleaning. I was tasked with taking down the buffet. I broke down the hot dishes, collected utensils and threw out garbage.
“I think I came into the event with a belief that the homeless youth we would be serving would be glum or embarrassed for their circumstances. Instead, I saw a lot of smiling faces.”
Our guests proceeded out with their care packages in hand, back to the shelters where they reside. Some of these shelters have “lights out” at midnight, and the guests are expected to be up at 6am to help prepare the morning meal, set up tables and chairs, and then share duties for clean up before leaving for the day.
Our staff, Cubs’ volunteers and I then cleaned up the main room, returning it to the form in which we found it. We boxed up our supplies and loaded the van. We actually finished up earlier than expected.
The evening went so well. My worries were assuaged. We worked hard, and provided a good meal for those in need. I was able to experience the results of my efforts firsthand. I met some good hearted people, both volunteers and guests. We did some good. I look forward to next year’s opportunity.