the unexpected pleasure of doing something for nothing
Updated: Sep 17
I helped at a community food drop off today. We put together food parcels and dropped them off to the homes of people deemed at risk.
The room we worked in was in a community centre, a muriel on the wall, silk ropes hanging from exposed wooden beams. A room of community functions, built for bustle and people to exist and create. As soon as I walked in, I was charmed, in awe of the openness.
There was rows of staples - pasta, fruit squash, tinned veg - , treats - chocolate fingers, crisps, tea and coffee - and tables of toiletries and cleaning products. We were kitted with gloves and 360 visors, handmade by a partner charity, made of plastic, felt and a rubber band. I should have asked more questions, were did they get the supplies, where did the list of names come from? But I was not thinking of the site, I didn't go in thinking there would be much to say about it. Fool.
There was a sense of mission, of purpose; a few dozen empty cardboard boxes descended down upon by 6 women and dismantled, neatly packed away for recycling in a matter of minutes. Unspoken, undirected, but fiercely efficient.
Thankful to have a task to do, something to break the monotony of social isolation.
I met a woman that worked as a forklift support assistant for airlines. People would ram the forklifts into the sides of buildings, pierce through packages. She was there cause most of her work began when Asia woke up, so she had some free time in the early afternoon. I asked her the worst country for forklift mishaps (Beirut, if you were curious). There was a 40 year old woman that quit her corporate job and became a dog walker. She said she liked her job, until one day she didn't. So she left, and spends her days in the park, training dogs. A travel agent, with nothing to do. A DJ with a sound system, he brought in speakers and blasted summertime soca for us to dance to.
You pick up an M&S shopping bag and fill it with food. A different, less distinct bag and fill it with toiletries. Every house gets a bag of food and toiletries. The operation wasn't smooth or perfect. Mainly, the only person with the only detailed list of what every house needed was late. I can't begrudge her at all; she works in the NHS and was running late, coming straight from her shift to the community centre.
But it did mean that we didn't know exactly what everyone needed. There was boxes of tampons, piles of nappies and baby wipes, pet food and even some sort of farm animal feed, that went unused because we just began making general bags. By the time the list arrived, we had put together over 80 packages, and I think the person specific delivery aspect was forgotten in the flurry of movement. I only remembered the extra stuff when I got back to the house... But hey, next time.
The experience was pretty great. 10 or so volunteers showed up. Filling the bags was awesome, I felt like I was doing my weekly shop, but with the thrill of knowing it was all for free, going to someone in need of help. I tried to imagine what meals they could cook with my choices, picking up complimentary pasta and sauce, rice and veg.
I wanted to know more about the people I was choosing for. If it was going to a family, I wanted to add in extra biscuits, some sweets, and Fruit Shoots. Would this person prefer tea or coffee? 140 bags of tea is a lot to give to someone. Would they want a bubblegum bath, or minty fresh shower? How many loo rolls will they need for 2 weeks?
Once bagged, we stapled the addresses onto the packages and began making drops. A few people loaded their cars up, a few set out with grandma trollies. All the addresses were in walking distance, all flats in maze-like council estates.
You knock on the door, call out that you have a care package, place the bags down, and retreat back to the street. One house would not open the door, but asked questions through the door, suspicion and fear in his voice. What kind of food, where did we come from, [why should I trust you?]. The woman I was delivering with - the corporate turned dog trainer - assured me the person behind the door was on the list for a reason. Who knows what mental health struggles he was dealing with? Paranoia and isolation don't mix well, the best we could do was leave the package at his door, and leave, give him space. You aren't doing it for thanks or praise or even expressed appreciation.
Not that we didn't receive thanks. One older lady sticks out in my memory. She lived on the third floor of a block of flats. I was sweaty, overheating, heaving bags up three flights of stairs, feeling a little grumpy. But the woman I met made it seem like no bother at all. Shorter than I am (I stand at 5'2), face crinkled with age, white hair bright against dark black skin. House dress on like my mum used to wear, soft slippers on her feet. Her face collapsed into a smile when she saw the heavy bags almost overflowing with food and care products. She wasn't expecting us, maybe. Didn't know she ended up on our list. Her surprise turned to joy, she grinned, blessed us more times than I could count. I could do nothing but beam at her and back away holding my breath, assuring her it was no trouble at all. It felt like nothing, a small act, but one that meant a lot to her.
I went back to the community centre after doing one round of deliveries, but was disappointed to see the room was almost bare. It took less than two hours for a team of 10ish to pack and delivers 80ish packages. I was still ready to do more, energised by good will and a sense of accomplishment, but the work was done. As over as quickly as it began. It's amazing how much a few people can get done with the will and energy.
Is this why people get involved? Are we all just chasing this sense of connection, our goodwill really just satiating a selfish need for purpose and energy?
I don't know. Maybe there's nothing wrong with getting involved if only to feed off the energy of the people around you. We are social creatures. But it was good. I want more. That is all.