Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center.
If you’re not sure what “radical compassion” means, just take a look at Teen Feed, a local nonprofit that works to meet the most basic needs of homeless youths in Seattle. Without a cent of government funding, Teen Feed provides fresh, hot meals to about 80 young people 365 days a year, no strings attached. In addition to the meal program, Teen Feed runs STOP (Street Talk Outreach Program), which sends teams to the streets and encampments to offer basic necessities, such as food and water, to high-risk youths who avoid social service agencies. The nonprofit’s SLY (Service Links for Youth) program helps youths access health care, housing, employment, identification or any other social services they need. But building trust and relationships is Teen Feed’s first task, and help is always at the young person’s request and on their own timeline.
Teen Feed doesn’t just make a difference in the lives of the people it helps. Through the practice of radical compassion, volunteers find that their lives can be transformed as well. Sophia Moser was introduced to Teen Feed through the Gates Foundation’s Take Action Summer Workshops five years ago. She interned at Teen Feed during her senior year of high school and continued to volunteer for another year after that. Moser returned to Teen Feed last year as a staff member, recruiting and training new employees. Now a new graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in international relations, Moser is preparing to work in human rights in Central America before teaching English in Brazil on a Fulbright grant. ParentMap caught up with Moser before her departure to talk about Teen Feed.
What is special about Teen Feed?
Teen Feed is so important because it gives people a place to come as a first step toward self-determination. We don’t have any requirement that you go further with any of our programming or the services that we provide. You can come and just get a meal, and that’s totally fine. But it’s also a safe place where you can come and put your foot in the water, making those connections with our advocates and staff. But I think it’s really special that it starts with community space and from there, when you build trust, then you can access services if you want.
What have you learned as a teen volunteer with Teen Feed?
First, the most basic thing is that we live in a city where homelessness is a very large problem. Volunteering at Teen Feed opened my eyes to its magnitude. It’s important to understand your privilege wherever you live.
Also, a lot of times with nonprofits, there is an imbalance between the giver of help and the receiver. Teen Feed creates an important balance where it feels equal and peer-based. It’s a really important thing for youth to learn that giving back to the community is about the community, not about being a savior or fixing people. Teen Feed taught me that I can help, but I’m also learning and growing, building something together with the people I serve. It pushed me away from having any sort of savior mindset.
What makes Teen Feed effective?
If you want to help the community in any way, the first important step is sitting down at the table and speaking with people and building relationships. Working at Teen Feed, the most impactful experience was being present at meals. I did all this work in the office and I knew I was helping, but I learned the most when I got to sit down with the youth and just talk with them. Teen Feed understands the importance of building trusting relationships.
Why is Teen Feed a great volunteer opportunity for families?
The way I was involved was unique — [because I was] a special projects volunteer, my parents were not involved. But there was one time when I was in high school that a kitchen team canceled at the last minute and we scrambled to fill the gap. My parents came in and helped to make a meal. It was a wonderful opportunity where they got to see me working with this group of cool, passionate people. It’s a great experience for families to do this work together.
How has Teen Feed affected your life?
My involvement with Teen Feed was pivotal for me realizing what path I want to go on, career-wise, and what I want to do with my life. It provided me with a safe and supportive community and the opportunity to give back by doing crucial work in the community. But at the same time, it gave me so much. If you’re talking about things that teens can do, I can’t recommend it more strongly.
Teen Feed’s approach of meeting people where they are applies to volunteers as well. The organization offers remote volunteering options with no age requirements as well as in-person options that require no training or minimum time commitment. But there are programs enabling more substantial involvement, too. In some cases, minimum ages can be waived at the supervising parent’s discretion. Find complete information about volunteer positions here.
Dinner volunteers/kitchen support (ages 15 and older): Cook and package mobile meals for the Teen Feed dinner program. No commitment, experience or training required.
Youth Ally (ages 15–18): Help distribute hot meals at Teen Feed’s dinner program. Allies commit to a weekly evening shift for one year. Training in youth homelessness and fighting oppression is provided.
Basic-needs drives (all ages; remote): Collect new and high-quality clothing, basic necessities and toiletries in your community. Coordinate with Teen Feed for details.
CupcakeUP (all ages, remote): Bake healthy desserts to include in nightly meal service.
Meal teams (ages 10 and older; on-site or remote): Your family can cook a full, nutritious dinner together for Teen Feed’s dinner program. Coordinate with Teen Feed for scheduling. If cooking for dozens is too intimidating, consider scheduling a shift spent deep-cleaning the kitchen as a family.
Special projects (details vary): Teen Feed has a number of special projects and ongoing remote work that some teens may be qualified to perform. Check the volunteer webpage for more information.
A word about COVID-19
During the pandemic, many programs have been altered or limited, and the Youth Ally program has been paused. Teen Feed hopes to revive the program and return to full operations in the fall. However, because Teen Feed serves a population that is less likely to receive vaccination, it will continue to operate under most COVID-19 protocols, including the use of gloves and masks, indefinitely. High-risk and unvaccinated individuals should consider remote volunteer work only.