FALMOUTH — In these uncertain times, when our lives have been upended by the novel coronavirus, Americans are being encouraged to look out for those who are most vulnerable – homeless or living on the edge – and those who are older and have less resistance to disease.

Though we don’t think of ourselves as old, my husband and I find ourselves in this demographic. “How do I keep my elderly friends and family safe?” is the headline of a recent article in the Portland Press Herald, which then goes on to offer practical and useful advice for us about staying at home as much as possible, being stocked up on medications and foods and avoiding crowds.

We are, so far, doing fine, but what we find difficult is that by being responsible to the community (staying home, hence less likely to catch the virus and be hospitalized), we have had to give up volunteering at the Preble Street soup kitchen. For the past six years, until the coronavirus arrived in Maine, we worked at the soup kitchen two or three evenings each month. The kitchen serves three meals a day, every day, to between 250 and 400 people. Two staff members are in charge of the kitchen while other staff oversee the dining room, making sure that the clients’ needs are met and meals run smoothly.

On the nights we volunteer, my husband usually runs the industrial dishwasher. For the first hour I help with meal preparation (making salad, cutting bread) or setting up the dining hall, and then, once the doors have opened and the meal is being served, I work at a window-like opening separating the dining room from the kitchen, where guests hand in their trays after they finish eating.

I toss napkins and other trash into a large trash can, scrape whatever food remains on the trays into another large trash can for compost, drop the silverware into a tub of disinfectant and water to be run through the machine later, turn the mugs and cups upside-down on racks and pile the trays up for my husband to rinse and stack on other racks before pushing them through the enormous dishwasher. It can get quite frantic, though there are lulls. Other volunteers cook and serve the meal (cafeteria-style), put away pots and pans and clean up.

Those who come to the soup kitchen are hungry, and the staff and volunteers make sure clients get a good meal before they go out into the night and make their way to their apartments or the homeless shelter or the street. It no longer surprises me, but I am always moved by their gratitude. They have so little, and yet handing in their trays, most thank us, bless us, wish us well.

In these fraught days, I think of the question: How can your readers help older people during the pandemic? And I want to answer: Consider taking our places and volunteering at this time when we cannot. Daily, it seems, we get emails from Preble Street, seeking volunteers for various shifts. Church groups and school groups have had to cancel. The need for volunteers is growing, and yet many adults can no longer volunteer without putting the community at risk.

Because, so far, younger people seem to be able to weather the virus better than we do, I’m hoping that, when they wonder what they can do, they will consider volunteering at Preble Street or other organizations that can’t close their doors without abandoning the most vulnerable. The nonprofit organization’s website (preblestreet.org) has information about volunteering and about the extensive measures Preble Street has taken to keep clients, staff and volunteers safe. You can email [email protected] to reach the Preble Street volunteer manager.

It’s hard to explain how intensely rewarding we both find this work. Volunteering in a soup kitchen can’t change the unjust systems that create homelessness and food insecurity, but the work is immediate and concrete. Please step in while we cannot.


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