I live in College Station, Texas, about a 1 ½ hour drive from Houston. When Hurricane Rita hit in 2005, many people from the Houston area were encouraged to evacuate, and many ended up in my city. When my church announced they were opening a shelter in our activity center, I called to ask how I could help. Our beleaguered, but incredibly capable parish business administrator asked me if I could get dinner together for the evacuees. They were expecting 150.
Of course I said, “Sure!” envisioning a quick trip to a warehouse club for frozen lasagnas and bags of salad, and a few phone calls to friends asking them to help. Somehow my “Sure,” turned into “Mary is in charge of food for the shelter!” Instead of serving 150 for dinner that night, we served 250, and as many as 450 for meals for the few days the shelter was opened.
Here’s what I learned.
Lesson 1 You Can Do Anything If You are Smart, Flexible, and Aren’t Afraid to Ask for Help
I am the last person who should be put in charge of a large-scale food operation. At best, I am a mediocre cook, and I have no experience serving the masses. But, I do have a reputation for “getting things done.” In this disaster situation, I had no choice. There were hungry people who needed to be fed. While I couldn’t cook, I COULD organize. My team of cooks, servers, shoppers, food donators, and even trash collectors were the best!
Lesson 2: Always Have a Backup Plan
A nationally known relief agency promised to deliver many meals to our shelter to ease the chore and expense of feeding so many. Our kitchen crew was happy to hear that. But, midafternoon came and there was no food being delivered. We decided to keep on cooking ourselves. If the meals came, we’d serve them, and keep our food for “leftovers” the next day. If not, people would still be fed. Good thing—those extra meals never showed up.
Lesson 3: People (or Organizations) Don’t Always Live Up to their Promises
See Lesson 2. It’s fine to trust, but also verify before you make plans that can’t be changed, or in our case, people would have gone hungry.
Lesson 4: Volunteers can be a Wonderful
Without a doubt, our church shelter could not have been run without the dedicated, selfless, tireless work of scores of volunteers. Especially appreciated were the volunteers who just did what needed to be done—you know, those “low maintenance” people. They were there to help, not to receive praise. They did not micromanage (i.e. complain) about every little thing. They offered their help with joy and enthusiasm.
Lesson 5: Volunteers can be a Pain
While some volunteers were great, some were just more trouble than they were worth. They only wanted to do certain jobs even though other things needed to be done. They saw themselves as “in charge” when they really needed to just shut up, get to work, and do what needs to be done. They challenged every process and procedure at inappropriate times. I think you get the idea.
Lesson 6: Gratitude Can Take Your Breath Away
At its peak, our shelter housed and fed 450. Some of our guests were obviously financially challenged, yet they passed a bucket and made a significant gift to offset the church’s expenses. Virtually all of our guests expressed their appreciation in some way, and I was touched.
Lesson 7: If You Don’t Ask, You Won’t Get
At our shelter, we literally never knew where the food was going to come from for the next meal. Word-of-mouth mustered our parish and other community resources. Restaurants donated easy-to-serve meals. Individual and organizations bought food we could prepare to serve our guests. We asked for a lot, and businesses and people responded. If we had been shy about asking, people would have gone hungry.
Lesson 8 Little Things Mean a Lot
Many of our shelter guests were Hispanic. I’m not, and I don’t particularly like that cuisine. Fortunately some of our volunteer cooks were of Hispanic heritage. They knew that our guests would like the food a whole lot more if we had hot sauce and lightly fried the tortillas. I never would have guessed that a few drops of hot sauce and tortillas that were prepared the “right” way would make our guests faces light up when they ate. When their lives were in turmoil and they didn’t even know if they had a home to return to, we showed them that we cared about making their food just as they liked it. That was real comfort.
Lesson 9 Somebody Will Always Second Guess Your Decisions
We have to make decisions in “real time” and with incomplete information. When we planned our shelter meals, we were planning hour-to-hour. We didn’t know how many we would be serving or what “raw materials” for meals would come through the door.
Most of the time, we made good decisions. After all, our shelter did amazing work, and when I think of those days, it is with pride, both in my leadership and in my team of workers. We served thousands of meals together.
Sometimes, we missed the mark a bit, and sometimes volunteers or even our guests disagreed with a decision I made.
When I need to make a hard decision today, this experience reminds me that when it’s my responsibility to decide, I need to do what I think is best and be willing to take the heat. Nobody hits the mark 100% of the time, but you can always adapt. When you make a bad decision, naysayers are not helpful. Those who offer ideas for improving the situation are.
Lesson 10 Open Minds and Open Hearts Can Change the World
We live in a dynamic world. While it is good for us to plan ahead, we should never become so attached to our plans that we can’t adjust them to help others. Our shelter was originally set up for 150, but through creativity, hard work, and gracious volunteers, we stretched ourselves to serve 450. The potential of open minds and open hearts is without limit.
What do you think?