(I wrote this piece for the Food for Others newsletter almost four years ago, using the Parade of Nations at the Beijing Olympic Games as my motif. I dust it off for Patch readers on the occasion of the 2012 London Game. It still well describes our days at Food for Others.)
As I was watching the Opening Ceremonies of Beijing Olympics and seeing the Parade of Nations, I couldn’t help but think of my front-desk job at Food for Others. Just as the Olympic teams entered in what to me was haphazard order because they followed the unknown-to-me Chinese alphabet, and just as those teams are made up of athletes who run, jump, swim, sail, and throw things, the Food for Others clients come seemingly in random order too and they are all different – a constant surprise. When I hear the outer door open in the entryway, all I know is that it could be anybody from anywhere. And, indeed, that’s just who it is.
It might be the lady from the hill tribe in Morocco, who comes regularly but whose last name still overmatches my tongue. Or the Dinka man from the Sudan, who came for the first time this week and whom I remember for his jaunty fedora. Or the old Vietnamese man whose two-letter last name, when put into the computer, calls up most of our database. While we don’t as a policy ask people what brought them here, the story often spills out. Many of the Hispanic day laborers, who a year or two ago were working regularly building homes, now say there is rarely work every day. Many clients do work fulltime, but minimum wage in Fairfax County amounts to a daily struggle. Our food supplements make the difference.
Nor are all our clients immigrants. Recently there was a Fairfax County real-estate agent. She was dressed smartly like, well, like a Fairfax County real-estate agent. But she sheepishly told me that she had not sold a property in four months and had heard about us at church. There are regular visits from just-released offenders who are trying to make that difficult transition back to society. Or new clients like the young second-generation Hispanic (I could tell because his English had no accent) who came in with his girlfriend, his tattoos, his gold chains, his low-rider jeans and his sideways baseball cap. He did a good job in maintaining his swagger, which I did not begrudge him at all. And after we had done the registration questions, he offered us the best compliment I’d heard in a long time: “You guys don’t have no attitude,” he said. I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Because if we have an attitude that means we are being judgmental or patronizing or worse. I would hate to imagine someone going hungry rather than subjecting themselves to that. Our clients come to us asking for food – they are vulnerable to the least insensitivity from us. In my time as a volunteer, I have been impressed by the spirit that pervades Food for Others, especially their respect for our clients. Accordingly our clients come back until they can get on their feet. As for any organization, for Food for Others that is the proudest boast.
And so they come, this parade of nations. All different, each with a story, working hard (often at two minimum-wage jobs) or derailed by sickness that is not insured or abandoned by a spouse or fleeing wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or just out of jail. It is our privilege to meet them at the door and do what we can for them – without “no attitude.”