Individual efforts can move thousands. And seeing the world through the eyes of another has the potential to save lives.
That's why the people who run some of the biggest volunteer organizations devoted to serving the under-served recommend making real connections this holiday season.
"Connection" is a common mantra of Anthony Butler, executive director of Saint John's Bread and Life in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Saint John's Bread and Life, established in 1982, is the largest emergency food provider in Brooklyn. Last year, the organization served more than 1 million hot meals. Making and delivering all of that food requires a multitude of volunteers. Butler is a champion of human rights and justice, and he hopes that each of those volunteers leaves Saint John's with a specific idea: “The notion that we have to connect with our neighbors," he says.
To call Saint John's Bread and Life a soup kitchen is a disservice.
The organization deploys a mobile soup kitchen twice daily, five days a week, to bring hot meals to local neighborhoods. A food pantry offers take-home goods. On site, there are medical, immigration and identification card services, and those without permanent living arrangements can use the Saint John's address as their own for mail and official forms. The facility is also equipped with a library, computer lab and teaching kitchen, which offers healthy cooking classes.
“We do a lot of work with people, teaching them better eating habits and how to prepare food at home,” says Butler, who adds that 20 percent of New York City's population lives below the poverty level.
“There are cognitive issues related to (lack of) food, and there's a lot of evidence that shows that poor nutrition in the early years causes damage that's not correctable," he says.
Are the lessons working?
Butler, who says most of the cooking class students are mothers, thinks so. “And the way that we drive them is really to get food their kids are going to eat — and as a parent, that's always a battle.”
Bread and Life makes an enormous impact in the lives of the disadvantaged. So why did the organization skip the big turkey dinner last Thanksgiving? “From a tactical point of view, Thanksgiving's the one time in this country that it's not hard to find a meal,” Butler explains. “There are so many churches and community centers doing it that we do it the day before.”
And when Butler hosts a party, he does it right. Sports figures like the Brooklyn Nets serve food. Music makes the atmosphere festive. And an army of volunteers ensures there's plenty of food to go around, even though close to 3,000 hot meals were served for the pre-Thanksgiving celebration last year.
During dinner at Saint John's, volunteers are encouraged to mingle to help dispel the sense of “other.” “One of the dangers of any kind of emergency feeding program is that they're rather hierarchical,” Butler says.
Thanksgiving volunteers and lavish holiday meals, of course, are a wonderful thing. “Folks who don't have much should be able to have nice days, not just subsistence days,” Butler says.
With the holidays flush with volunteers inspired to give, Butler hopes people remember hard times don't end after December.
“I just try to remind people that, on January 1, this hunger problem is still around,” he says. “Hopefully they can take away a sense of connection with these folks who are receiving the food on that day. Something that may spark some sense of obligation down the road.”
Connections happen. Teenagers who served food on Thanksgiving organized a fundraiser for Saint John's over spring break, says Butler, who has advice for anyone who feels similarly compelled to volunteer.
“What they've really got to do is take stock of themselves and see how they can make a difference, not how to get something out of it,” he says. “And if they make a difference, they will get something out of it.”
The best way to make an impact, says Butler, is to connect with other people — particularly those with whom you might not normally associate. “I think that's the only way things are going to change,” he said. “You only help the people you know.”
Connection is one of the ideas behind DoSomething.org's “Grandparents Gone Wired” program, which promotes civic responsibility by encouraging youth to help elders learn how to stay technologically connected. Grandparents Gone Wired is a partnership with Mentor Up, an AARP reverse-mentoring program.
“It's one of my favorite campaigns and a family-friendly, holiday-centric way of giving that doesn't require a lot of money,” says Naomi Hirabayashi, chief marketing officer of the organization. “This way, you can give the gift of helping your neighbor or your own grandparents get set up on technology and stay connected, and fight feelings of isolation," she says. "But it doesn't require a dollar — it's just sharing something you know.”
One in four Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 don’t know how to use the Internet, although studies show that, particularly in a fast-paced world where family members are often separated by distance, having online access can help curb depression.
Kyle McVea, one of the program's youth volunteers, taught a woman in his community how to use eBay to help her earn a little extra cash.
"My mentee had fun and learned a lot," he says. "She was excited to sell some things, but more excited to buy other peoples stuff ... She couldn't believe someone was selling their cat like that.”
Few efforts illustrate the power of connection better than Operation Turkey, which was started by Richard M. Bagdonas in 2000. Now, bolstered by an army of helpers, the program provides meals to the homeless each Thanksgiving.
Brian Tolbert, executive director for Operation Turkey, says Bagdonas was moved by the sense of abundance Thanksgiving often inspires. With more food than his appetite could handle one Thanksgiving evening, Bagdonas hit the streets of Austin, Texas, laden with leftovers and looking to save someone's holiday. But he was completely unprepared for the emotional impact of his act.
“He found a man in a wheelchair on one of the streets downtown,” said Tolbert. “He went over to give the meal to that man, who couldn't talk and couldn't hear.”
He was also unable to feed himself. “But the homeless guy next to him said 'thank you' and helped feed the meal to the man,” Bagdonas writes in a testimonial on Operation Turkey's website. “Afterwards, I sat in my car and cried, and I knew I wanted to do something about it."
Tolbert adds, “(Bagdonas) just started inviting friends and family, and each year this organization literally doubled in the size of numbers of people who want to feed the homeless and less fortunate.”
This Thanksgiving, Operation Turkey will deliver at least 8,000 boxed turkey dinners in Austin alone. In its 13 years, Operation Turkey has spread to other metropolitan areas in Texas and beyond. The organization, which is completely volunteer-run, hosts a day-before-Thanksgiving tailgate party, where more than 1,000 pounds of potatoes are boiled and more than 500 donated turkeys are pit-smoked.
“We don't hold back,” says Tolbert, laughing.
The organization also doesn't turn away volunteers. By early November, the organization had more than 7,000 registered volunteers. “We get on Thanksgiving day, in Austin alone, somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 volunteers that actually show up to work,” Tolbert adds.
He says Operation Turkey has had him feeding former millionaires who have fallen on massively hard times.
"Almost overnight, they became homeless, without anywhere to go," he said. “You never know what could happen to you, and without some kind of support system, you might never get yourself back out of that."