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What Makes Me Volunteer

Ryan Clark is one of our GLIDE Emerging Leaders interns this summer. Joining us from Boston College, Ryan took an immediate interest in food justice, education and volunteerism, and has spent the last several weeks working on a campaign to increase and retain the number of volunteers in the Daily Free Meals Program. Though the internship is quickly coming to an end, Ryan took some time to reflect on the connections he has made with GLIDE staff and the people we serve. We are so appreciative of the care and enthusiasm he has shown in his work and for GLIDE!   

The 5:30 alarm always comes out of nowhere. No matter how much sleep I get, I’m slightly confused when I hear the bongos blasting through my room. The first hour of the morning is spent in a daze—very few thoughts cross my mind as I hop in the shower, grab a piece of toast, and catch the L Taraval to GLIDE.

Then, as I walk through the doors at 330 Ellis, head downstairs, and throw on an apron, something amazing happens. It goes like this:

James Sampaga gives me a warm welcome (and then, in his good-natured and brotherly way, picks on me). Other volunteers walk over and introduce themselves. I say hi to the folks I’ve worked with before and good morning to GLIDE staff. As the volume comes up on the Sam Cooke and Mavin Gaye tracks, I begin to feel not only awake but contented, even excited. Next thing I know we’re swept up in a fast-paced, smooth-running operation delivering food and welcome to a long line of people hungry for a meal, and equally desirous of some service, some respect, some comradery and acceptance. Herein lies the magic of volunteering, and the magic of serving at GLIDE.

ryan and james

Ryan (left) preparing to serve a meal at GLIDE with James Sampaga.

There’s a certain type of community that exists downstairs that, for me at least, is unmistakable. From the first morning I went down there, James and Curtis McGregor treated me with love and respect. Within a shift or so they were barking orders at me, making fun of me, and treating me like their own. I found it easy to connect with other volunteers, and staff members as well, over the work that we’re doing. The groups that come in—from all over the country—are friendly, hardworking, and interested in learning more about the work that goes on at GLIDE.

To be the first person to welcome an elderly person in for a hot meal, as the sun is coming up, is a really good spot to be in.

And the individual volunteers will blow you away. I’ve gotten to know Lizzie, a senior at SF State, who comes about as often as she can (three, four, even five times a week) and sometimes will stay from breakfast through prep, and then serve again at lunch. I’ve talked with folks like David and Kent, who came to GLIDE first to eat, not to volunteer. The dedication with which they return speaks to the effect that the program has on people—it means enough for them to keep coming back, multiple times a week, five and even ten years later.

ryan and clem

Ryan serving lunch with a long-term volunteer, Clem (right).

As a volunteer you can find yourself doing a number of things. Collecting tickets is undoubtedly the most fun. The seniors start coming at 7:30, and they’re all really nice, really sweet. If I share a friendly “good morning” and a genuine smile, the combination of responses equates to something powerful. There’s a genuine gratitude, an overwhelming amount of connection for such a short interaction. And for some, there’s an also-genuine desire to swipe a few tickets from the bin when I’m not looking, but that’s beside the point. To be the first person to welcome an elderly person in for a hot meal, as the sun is coming up, is a really good spot to be in.

Walking around bussing tables can also be a good time. You develop some comradery with the folks you’re serving alongside, and you get to interact with GLIDE’s guests face to face as they enjoy their meals (or stash them away in tupperware). Occasionally folks will ask you to grab something for them—some ice maybe, a new fork—or refill their water bottle, and so on. In these moments people are also really kind, and you might get a chance to chat with them further.

Perhaps the best part of bussing is just the humbling aspect of it. Rolling up your sleeves and waiting on people who are poor and homeless in San Francisco, people who are not accustomed to being treated like they are special or even equal, is restorative. It helps to flip the script on all those times I’ve walked past people on the streets and said, “Sorry, I don’t have any cash,” or simply forgotten to acknowledge their presence.

From chronically homeless people to those simply just struggling to make ends meet, feed their family. GLIDE turns no one away.

Occasionally, a client interaction will change your day. Sometimes it comes from just observing people. For example, I’m always struck by the clients that come in looking like they’re on their lunch break at a company in the area. I realize we’re not just serving people on the streets; GLIDE is a place for all. From chronically homeless people to those simply just struggling to make ends meet, feed their family. GLIDE turns no one away.

This ethic extends to volunteers as well. I’ve served alongside people from large, successful companies, in nice, expensive dress clothes, and people who eat at GLIDE multiple times a week. I’ve learned that, regardless of background, everyone has something to give in the Meals Program.

Recently I asked David, a regular volunteer and former client, what his favorite part about volunteering with Meals was. His response has stuck with me:

“To be honest man, just the feeling of actually helping somebody out that can’t return the favor to you, makes it really. It’s a humbling feeling.”

Community arises around food, and around giving—the idea that this one act of service, with consistency, can end up being a big help in the end. Being the person providing the service places you in the middle of this process of healing, one meal at a time. And that is humbling.

A regular volunteer serving “World Famous” GLIDE Fried Chicken.

A GLIDE volunteer prepares a meal in the prep room.