Written by Nancy Erickson, Communications Coordinator of Catalogue for Philanthropy
Imagine that you wake up on the street one morning. You have no job, no home, no bank account, no food, no blanket, and you’re running out of your prescription medication. It’s getting cold and you’re hungry. Where do you turn?
Located in downtown Silver Spring, nonprofit Shepherd’s Table is often the first place individuals experiencing homelessness go for help. For over 35 years, this local institution has been providing a broad array of free services, such as clothing, referrals, information, toiletries, bus tokens, and even mail boxes. As their name indicates, they are best known for their meal service, delivering 3 nutritious meals a day during the week and 2 meals a day on weekends. This past Valentine’s Day, I was honored to join them for lunch as a volunteer.
The kitchen was a hustle-bustle of moving bodies and dishes when I arrived for my 11:30-1:15 shift. Plus, there was a camera crew! WUSA9 was filming a news segment on Michael’s Desserts. Michael is a 14-year-old who started his baking company in 2017. That lunch, he was handing out free Valentine’s cupcakes to the guests of Shepherd’s Table.
I signed in on the volunteer computer (it shoots out personalized nametags!), grabbed an iconic Shepherd’s Table green apron (one of the nice ones since cameras were rolling), scrubbed up, put some gloves on, and was introduced to fellow volunteers and staff members. Given that Shepherd’s Table has been around so long, it’s no surprise that lunch was run like a well-oiled machine.
Their highly capable head chef assigned me to the section of the buffet line next to Victoria, another veteran volunteer. Next came my 30-second volunteer orientation: two pieces of garlic bread, one scoop of vegetables, keep your station clean. Down the buffet, other volunteers served salad, rolls, and beverages. At the end, Michael served his cupcakes along with cookies that had been decorated and donated by Silver Spring Cares the day before on “Galentine’s Day.”
Soon, the lunch rush was upon us. Guests of all ages, genders, and colors filed through the line; when a family with small children came though, we used smaller kids’ plates for their meals. It was fast-paced work! I took people’s preferences (only bread, no green beans, etc.) and filled their plates as quickly as possible, wishing them a Happy Valentine’s Day as they went along. When a pan began to run low on food, I shouted back into the kitchen for a refill and tried to swap it out as quickly as possible to not hold up the line. The spaghetti sauce was incredibly heavy — I’m relieved that I didn’t drop the whole thing on the floor!
Because Victoria has been a volunteer for a long time at Shepherd’s Table, she knew many of the guests by name and cheerfully chatted them up as the line went along. Volunteers are under strict instructions to not provide anyone with seconds lest we run out of food for late-comers. Some people tried anyway, but Victoria’s sharp memory helped us remember who had already gone through the line once already.
The cafeteria filled up quickly. One volunteer’s role was to stand near the front door with a clipboard to take a headcount. (That lunch, we received 119 guests. An average lunch serves about 135 guests.) Another volunteer accompanied guests through the line, helping them carry their plates or find a seat. As guests finished their meals, they bussed their trays and dishes to a hole in the wall where cleanup volunteers were cleaning dishes.
After guests had departed – many thanking us as they left – it was time for cleanup. Many hands make light work and we certainly needed many hands! We packed away leftover food, wiped down tables and countertops, swept the floor, and put up chairs. Back in the kitchen, I started methodically rolling silverware, using muscle memory from my time as a waitress. After an adrenaline-fueled lunch rush, Shepherd’s Table could take a breather. Only a few hours left before the dinner rush!
My lunch shift had been a fun, rewarding, and straightforward experience. I got to share my Valentine’s Day with some lovely, caring people and contribute to my community. I highly recommend those living in the Silver Spring area to consider volunteering there! It was also great fun to watch the news segment on Michael’s Desserts afterwards.
Since 1983, Shepherd’s Table has never missed a meal. This has required a lot of manpower to pull off and wouldn’t be possible without the reliable flow of volunteer labor. Because there’s no time-intensive training needed to dish out food and clean dishes, just about anyone can help out with meal service! You can sign up for as many or as few shifts as you want, depending on your schedule.
However, if being a lunch lady isn’t your cup of tea, then good news — Shepherd’s Table needs volunteers for other projects as well:
- Resource Center — If you’re willing to make a recurring commitment and attend a training, you can help staff distribute mail, supplies, and toiletries to clients as well as file paperwork.
- Clothing Sorters/Distributers — Help sort clothing donations and help clients pick out outfits.
- Food Pickup — If you have a vehicle, you can pick up and deliver food donations from local grocery stores and deliver them to the Shepherd’s Table kitchen
- Eye Clinic — Provide administrative assistance to the Eye Clinic staff such as greeting clients and filing paperwork
- Garden — Help Shepherd’s Table expand their garden for on-campus produce by weeding and helping them install new beds.
If you’re interested in learning more about giving back to Shepherd’s Table, visit their volunteer page.
The Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington is the region’s only locally-focused guide to giving and volunteering. We believe in the power of small nonprofits to spark big change. Our goal is to create visibility for our charities, fuel their growth with philanthropic dollars, and create a movement for social good in our region. Since 2003, the Catalogue has raised more than $40 million for our network of vetted charities. Every nonprofit in our network is evaluated for excellence by a team of over 120 local experts. They assess each organization for impact, community need and financial transparency.