20 September 2009

Faces of poverty

One Saturday morning per month, the Houston Food Bank reserves its loading bays for volunteers of the Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston to pick up boxes of dry goods to deliver to low-income senior citizens around the city. Yesterday was that day. The small box generally contains canned vegetables and fruit, dried pasta or rice and dried beans, and often breakfast cereal and fruit juice. The purpose of the Food For Seniors program is to supplement their clients’ pantries and nutritional intake each month.

It is not a month supply of food, but it helps. I have been volunteering for 6 years now and have had as many as 9 clients, but now am down to 3. Each client’s needs vary depending on their level of impoverishment, their general mental and physical health, and the span of their family support system.

If they are home when I arrive with their box of groceries, I have an opportunity to visit with my clients for a brief while. Exchange greetings, inquire about their health, comment on the weather. Sometimes we discuss God. Sometimes I just listen. We almost always shake hands or hug and their impact on my life is enormously valuable. The face of poverty to me is real, not abstract.

A senior citizen living in poverty in Houston, Texas has an income of under $800 per month. They have to pay rent or property taxes, buy medicine, gasoline, and pay for electricity, telephone and cable tv. Living in poverty is not easy and they often install screen doors on their houses to economize on electricity by cutting back on using air conditioning. They worry about the economics of items that I take for granted. My visits to them give me a stark reality check and thrust an attitude of gratitude into the forefront of my consciousness.

From time to time, as my volunteer Saturday approaches, I consider resigning from the regiment of volunteers. While it is not a huge commitment of time, my Saturdays are already generally full of other required errands and obligations. But then I remember a conversation with one of my current clients from several years ago. My volunteer service had been unexpectedly interrupted due to car problems, my clients did not receive their groceries that month. The following month, after my absence, this client expressed that he had been worried when I had not arrived. He shares his food supply among his immediate family – 2 adults and 5 children. He had been worried that his family would not make it through the month. Sobering.

Every time I secretly yearn to be free from this volunteer obligation, I remind myself of the impact of this program. My small commitment of time helps these 3 senior citizens so much more than it inconveniences me.

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