Loaves & Fishes – Week 5

Where I Went:
Using my “go-to” scheduler, Hands On Greater Portland, I registered for the project labeled, “Serve it Up for Seniors” with Loaves & Fishes. The job description looked simple: volunteers help prepare, serve, and clean-up a meal for seniors eating at the East Portland Community Center. 
Despite the name, Loaves & Fishes is not a faith based organization. Though I do believe the work of Christ is quite prevalent with those who serve. As described on their website:

The mission of Loaves & Fishes Centers is to enrich the lives of seniors and assist them in maintaining independence by making nutritious food, social contacts and other resources easily accessible. To the extent possible we will also serve disabled and institutionalized individuals. We accomplish this through an organization that is community based, emphasizes volunteer involvement and is financially sound.

First Impressions:
What did I get myself into?” I complained as I gathered last minute details for today’s volunteer outing. I hate being in kitchens. For some, cooking brings joy and pleasure. For me? Stress and dread. Seriously, I loved almost everything about my job in youth ministry years ago, EXCEPT when I had to work with food. Super Bowl Sub Sandwich Sales, Easter Breakfast – hated it.  
I contemplated the boundaries I originally set in my experiment. “To serve those less fortunate in wealth or health.”  Do senior citizens really count as less fortunate? I know older people in far better shape than I am, both fiscally and physically.
I had a lot to learn.
Following the emailed instructions, I hopped on I-84 toward Southeast Portland to the East Portland Community Center. I arrived at 9:55 a.m. with 5 minutes to spare, but no one left a space for me in the massive parking lot. A public middle school sits adjacent to the center. I took a chance and parked there. I’m a middle school mom. That’s justified, right? 
East Portland Community Center
I entered through the front doors and asked the receptionist to direct me to the kitchen. Heading down the hall, I made a right turn into the dining room. Teams of volunteers waited in line to pick up coolers packed with portable meals. This looked familiar. In my early 20’s I volunteered periodically with “Meals on Wheels”, Loaves & Fishes’ delivery service bringing hot, nutritious lunches to homebound seniors. 
I alerted the first employee I found that I was there to help via Hands On Portland. She lead me across the hall to Robert’s office.
Robert is the center manager of the Loaves & Fishes Cherry Blossom Center, as well as their 2 satellite locations. Entering his office, I hesitated and stood to the side while he chatted with a gentleman sitting at his desk. I eavesdropped. The man worried about the sanitation of a meal package in his cooler yesterday. That package had a small hole near the bottom corner. Robert explained they had an over-heating issue yesterday with the oven that probably caused the damage. He assured the man that the meal was safe. 
“The trays are made of bamboo,” he explained proudly, “totally environmentally friendly and totally safe.”
He snapped off a piece of the package popped it in his mouth. “See?” he reassured.
Satisfied, the man left the office. Robert saw me and spit out the bamboo.
“I wasn’t gonna swallow the thing, for God’s sake.”
I hadn’t even officially met him, but already Robert made me laugh. Introducing myself, Robert asked me to fill out a volunteer application. Once completed, he took me and another Hands On volunteer there for the day, Megan, into a conference room.
This is Robert.
Robert gave a brief orientation about the Loaves & Fishes organization. The seniors they help are poor and lonely, he explained. 
“Everyone out there,” he pointed to the dining room, “is here for nourishment, both for the body and the soul.”
Robert began to passionately tell stories.
He shared about his brother, one of the oldest survivors of HIV in Washington state. At one time, he would phone his homebound brother who would announce, “Today the chefs of Wild Ginger are bringing my meal.” Or, “Today the Four Seasons is delivering lunch.”  His humorous slang for “Meals on Wheels,” the volunteers would visit him daily.
It was a Meals on Wheels driver who rang the doorbell to Robert’s brother’s house and didn’t get an answer. It was that Meals on Wheels driver who entered the house to find Robert’s brother had passed away. And it was because of Meals on Wheels that Robert’s brother was cared for at the end of his life.
In gratitude, Robert quit his career as a French restauranteur and notified Loaves & Fishes he’d donate 2 years to them in memory of his brother. That was 3 years ago. 
He began with the company at the downtown location, where the average clients were males in their 70‘s, living in studios no bigger than the conference room in which we sat. Now employed at Portland’s largest facility, the average clients are widows in their 70‘s and 80’s living in homes, but without their husband’s income. 
Robert continues to narrate with intense emotion.
He tells of the woman who volunteers in the dining room three days a week. This widow survives on the minimal pay she receives from the government. She boasts that each day she turns on one lightbulb in her house for one hour, watches one hour of t.v., and only allows her furnace to run for one hour. That will keep her power bill manageable. 
Robert shares about the Meals on Wheels clients whose only interaction for the day will be with a delivery volunteer. One woman begs and pleads the drivers not to leave because she is desperate for interaction.
“It is deplorable how our society behaves toward the elderly,” he fumes. “We treat people like architecture. We tear down the old and build up the new. In other cultures, the elderly are revered. Here they are feared. We are so afraid of getting old, we Botox our way out of it.”
He ends with one more tale. A woman came to him recently and apologized for still being alive. She doesn’t mean to be such a burden, and she’s sorry.
I’m crying and I haven’t even started my job.
The Job:
Robert led the way to the kitchen and introduced us to Curt, the kitchen coordinator. Curt has kind eyes, a wide smile, and immediately welcomed us and shared his appreciation for our time. 
Hmmm, I hope he still feels this way after he’s seen me in the kitchen.
Not quite ready to give us kitchen chores, Robert asked me to step into the back pantry where he pointed out a tub of dog food. 
“Oh – do NOT tell me we serve that!” I stupidly thought for a millisecond.
Robert mentioned that for some elderly, all they have to live for are their pets. As center manager, he asks for donations of pet food to distribute to the seniors with animals. As he returned to his office, I grabbed some gallon sized Ziploc bags and started scooping.
When I filled enough bags, I located Curt and asked for a job. Instructing me to wash my hands and put on gloves, I joined Megan in dishing out portions of a layered egg salad. Megan is an AmeriCorps representative who volunteers as a high school reading specialist. School was out in her district today, so she took this last minute assignment through Hands On Portland. 
I didn’t tell her that if I had a day off, you wouldn’t find me looking for more work. You’d find me at the nail salon. And that, friends, is why I need to learn how to have the nature of a servant.
Megan and Curt in the kitchen
When we had scooped the last of the salad, we joined assistant coordinator, Dan, in preparing plates for the incoming senior citizens. Two entrees were offered today; french dip sandwiches that Dan had pre-made that morning, or roasted chicken with rice and heated-from-frozen broccoli and cauliflower. Megan put the roll and butter on the plate, Dan dolloped a clump of rice in the middle and placed the chicken on top, I finished with a scoop of reheated winter veggies on the side. 
“Robert believes in presentation,” Dan explained, fixing a piece of chicken that had slipped to the side. I imagine food appearance is imperative to a man that has owned three restaurants.
A few plates were served before a senior caregiver returned to the counter with her once browned poultry thigh now a pinkish, mangled mess. The chicken was undercooked. Soon another patron returned with her plate showing us the pale meat. Immediately, Robert appeared in the kitchen and Curt collected plates in the dining room. Dan hurriedly sliced pre-roasted pork and threw the slices into the oven. Seniors standing in line were informed that the pork would be done in a bit. They could wait or help themselves to a french dip. Most chose to stay put. Within 10 minutes, the good pork replaced the bad chicken and we were back on the serving line dishing up hot lunches as if the snag never happened. 
Roasted pork, roll, rice, and veggies
I commended Robert, Curt, and Dan on their ability to assess and move under pressure. 
“I couldn’t have done it,” I admitted, “I would have froze.”
“Part of the job”, Curt sighed. “We never want these people to have a meal that isn’t the best quality.”
Robert apologized, embarrassed that the incident happened. I re-stated my amazement by how well the snafu was handled.
When we saw all seniors had meals, Megan and I made plates for ourselves and found empty chairs at one of the round tables. Don and Cornelia sat next to us. They’ve been married for 18 or 20 years.
“Not 19?” I wanted to know from Don, who offered the information.
“No, no,” he answered “18 or 20.”
Cornelia asked me where I went to school.
“Do I look like a student?” I asked, astonished. 
She nodded. I LOVE Cornelia. I’m choosing to believe her eyesight is perfect.
This is how Cornelia saw me. Oh, to be 18 again…
I also met Bob. Bob is a WWII vet and a Meals on Wheels volunteer.
Bob wanted his picture taken with his coffee.
Finishing our lunch, Megan and I bussed tables before heading into the kitchen for our next assignment. It was 12:30, time to dump all of the food not eaten. Rolls, rice, salad, and frozen veggies all in the trash. (If anyone has a heart for composting, might I suggest Loaves & Fishes for a project?) I soaked a rag in bleach water and wiped down the counters until the stainless steel gleamed. An older woman shuffled through the dining room doors at 12:45. 
“Do you have any food left?”  Her raised voice hopeful.
I looked around for someone to help. Where was everyone?
“We don’t have anything hot,” I replied, “but I have some roast beef sandwiches in the fridge.”
I handed her two french dips and she revealed the reason for her tardiness.
“I was out in the yard,” she began, “and dozens of birds just swooped down. Colorful ones, yellow with green backs! Then the cats came and chased them and it was such a beautiful sight. I couldn’t move. I just wanted to watch. Birds were everywhere!”
How could I refute the beauty of birds on a sunny day? 
Curt returned to the kitchen and recognized this woman. I slightly panicked thinking he may be irritated that I gave food to this late-comer. Instead, he welcomed her with open arms and sat next to her in the dining room, attentive to her bird story.  He returned to the kitchen and pulled pre-packaged meals from the refrigerator. I bagged them for her to take home.
At 1:00, Megan and I were released from our duties. Curt showered us with appreciation once more. I always feel strange when thanked for volunteering in jobs like these. I’m only there for three hours, doing simple chores. If anything, I should be overpraising Curt, Robert, Dan, and the other employees working there for the serving they do every day. 
I gathered my belongings from Robert’s office and paused to say goodbye, only to stay and chat for the next 30 minutes. Through our conversation, I became more aware of his enormous amount of compassion, empathy, and love for what he does.  
Christmas cards were a big hit in December with the Meals on Wheels folks, Robert indicated. For some seniors, this was the only correspondence they’d receive. 
“It just so happens I will be leading 10 girls scouts this evening,” I informed, “Can we make Valentines for you?”
“I need 500.” He instantaneously responded.
The conversation continuing, he moved his computer mouse and the screen flickered. He clicked through a slideshow of photos he took while at the satellite location, Africa House Center, where Loaves & Fishes care for refugees “fresh off the shores.”  The warmth and emotion captured by Robert’s lens captivated me. It is the same warmth that radiated from the men I worked with today. I don’t know what faith background any of them possess  – but I can promise that I see Jesus personified in them. As I truly seek the humanity necessary to have the nature of a servant, these men prove to be worthy mentors.


  1. Anonymous says

    Incredible story! Truly amazing what the individuals are doing, what you are doing and what you are leaving. Probably like a lot of people, I think about what I would do if I won the lottery…cars, vacations, houses….then I get exposed to a need like this and wonder what I could do wit millions in case like this….food, activities, transportation, healthcare, basics like heat and electricity….

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