It would have been easier not to participate because, like most families, ours is busy with school and work and sports.
But when I saw the email request, I felt compelled to say yes. A person I had never met — a parent of my ninth-grade daughter’s classmate — was asking for volunteers to be part of a team that would serve dinner to homeless youth through the Teen Feed program. We would meet on a Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Seattle’s University Congregational Church to prepare the meal. Two hours later, the doors would open to our “guests.”
One of my biggest disappointments in the education of my kids is our family’s failure to find a meaningful and sustainable way to help those less fortunate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always one of the first volunteers for just about any cause, and my kids have witnessed that.
In fact, we have that popular magnet, “Stop me before I volunteer again,” prominently featured on our refrigerator.
We’ve donated money for school auctions and direct appeals, tsunami relief and hurricane relief, breast cancer and MS walkathons and bikeathons. The kids have participated in school-sponsored tree plantings, food-bank service days and visits to senior citizen centers, as well as various and sundry Girl Scout and Camp Fire volunteer events.
Still, they have never gotten up close to individual or widespread hardship. Nor have they ever volunteered on a regular basis.
A month after I signed us up, Teen Feed night arrived, and it was inconvenient. A carpool snafu had me driving across town and back again in rush-hour traffic, on a night when I was already trying to coordinate multiple kid pick-ups and had cookies to bake for a school event the next day.
But my mood instantly changed when my daughter, her friend and I set foot in the church kitchen, where, directed by team organizers Lara and Tzachi Litov, adult and teen volunteers were busily chopping vegetables for salad, heating garlic bread, stirring spaghetti sauce and pouring milk.
It was early in the school year, so the kids didn’t know each other well and neither did the adults.
Doing good together provided an unexpectedly easy ice-breaker.
Once the meal was underway, Tzachi, a Teen Feed board member, called us together to meet Jason Ponnequin, Teen Feed’s University District Meal Program Coordinator and a former “guest” himself.
Meals are served to guests in the University District 365 days a year, Ponnequin told us. For some, the nightly Teen Feed meal is the only reliable food these guests can count on. They should be encouraged to fill their plates and come back for seconds and thirds.
Teen Feed got its start in 1987, when a group of University of Washington Medical Center nurses noticed that many of the street youth accessing that facility’s emergency room were severely malnourished. A broad-based group of University District community members banded together to form Teen Feed, still the only regular provider of meals for youth and young adults in the University District. In addition to the University Congregational Church, meals also are offered at three other neighborhood locations.
Caloric nourishment is important, Ponnequin told us, but nourishment from relationships has equal value. Many Teen Feed guests are homeless because of poor treatment, often by adults. The benefit of sharing regular meals served by caring people is an important step toward rebuilding trust and lives.
In addition to meals, Teen Feed also provides youth support and outreach services. The organization has expanded its meal program to South Seattle, where meals are offered every Thursday, and to Auburn, which offers a Friday night meal service.
Teen Feed leaders have developed a five-year strategic plan, which includes the goal of expanding meal programs throughout the greater Seattle area.
When the guests arrived, the adult volunteers stayed in the kitchen and let our group of seven teens serve the meal.
Most of the guests were indistinguishable from their teen servers. All shared an appreciation for garlic bread.
There’s a collective wellspring of emotion in teens, as well as a desire for shared intimacy. This plays out most often on social media, where many teens feel compelled to share not only their triumphs but also their insecurities and problems.
But there’s no substitute for connecting personally with someone in need, looking that person in the eye and offering a smile and some nourishment.
This is an important part of education, especially when that person looks a lot like you or someone you know.
I’m not going to pretend that one night of volunteerism changed my family’s mindset, but it’s a start. Tzachi and Lara Litov will be gathering their team again on Christmas night. Even if it’s inconvenient, we’re planning to join them.
Teen Feed offers volunteer orientation on the first Wednesday of each month at the University Congregational Church, 4515 16th Ave. NW, Seattle. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP, though walk-ins are welcome.
There are a variety of ways to donate —from organizing meals or school sock drives to making a cash donation. Learn more about the organization and how you can help.
Alison Krupnick is ParentMap's Education Editor and a former world-traveling diplomat turned minivan-driving mom and writer. Have an education question or suggestion? Let her know at email@example.com.