"Move over. Let me show you a man-portion! These men are big. You need to give 'em more chili."
Listening to the expert, I forfeit the chili ladle from my latex-ed hands and back away.
This was my first visit to Chicago Christian Industrial League, a non-profit that offers housing and services to hundreds of Chicago's homeless men, women, and children. I am an intern at the Interfaith Youth Core, and we will be volunteering at CCIL throughout the summer, feeding over fifty homeless people lunch every other week. We are a religiously diverse group, from Catholic to Agnostic, and many of us feel that our faith traditions inspire us to serve. For me, the Jewish concept “Tikkun olam,” which means “to repair the world,” is particularly meaningful and inspires me to get involved in service.
On our first CCIL visit, we were assigned to work in the Community Food Pantry for lunch. I immediately chose to serve chili, mostly for the quintessential lunch lady experience. With a hairnet and a plastic apron, I was armed and ready when people began to stroll into the cafeteria. As the hungry residents moved down the buffet line, I slopped one ladle full of chili onto their plates.
My supervisor, a regular volunteer, pushed me aside and showed me a proper "man-portion." As the plate filled up the man in front of me grinned and laughed, nodding in approval.
My supervisor knew every single person that passed through the line, how much food they would want, and what they would want. She was not just a volunteer, but also a current resident, who took pride in being able to cook and serve for her community. As she showed off the kitchen's fully-stocked pantries, she proudly discussed with me the advanced culinary skills she developed through CCIL’s job training program and her brilliant daughter (third in her high school class!).
Volunteering at CCIL was the first time I have ever worked side-by-side with someone who was in need. As we worked together, she showed me more than how to size up men with proper amounts of chili. She also showed me the heart of CCIL, an organization that aims to empower people by giving them the opportunity to rise above their current situation. She gave me many definitions of who she was: a mother; a Baptist; a cook; a Georgia Peach; and a "faithful employee." Homeless was her situation, not who she was, and she was determined to rise above it.
I expected to be a little depressed after our first service experience, but I left in good spirits. It was awesome serving with so many friendly, helpful individuals who really took pride in their work. The problems the CCIL residents face are real, but so are their strengths and it was inspiring to work under their guidance.