Aching feet, busy minds, ready smiles and light hearts.
These are some of the side effects of regularly giving up your free time to help others, at least according to my experience.
Volunteering outside of study or work hours has been a regular part of my life since I was about 14.
So when I heard I’d have the chance to spend a day volunteering at the Salvation Army’s Rotorua foodbank as part of the Rotorua Daily Post Christmas appeal, I was excited. Already, I was looking forward to the buzz.
But I was also a little nervous.
By my scheduled volunteering day, we were 10 days into the six-week appeal. Donations had started to come in. On Sunday, a food drive with the Mamaku Volunteer Fire Brigade delivered 341 cans to the foodbank.
I predicted there would be quite a bit of packing and sorting to do. I knew the folks at the Salvation Army would already have their own systems and I worried I’d get in the way or, worse, that I’d only make a mess the already-busy staff would have to undo after I left.
As soon as I arrived, I realised I had nothing to worry about.
Despite the severe thunderstorm warning and a spring chill, the Salvation Army office and the people who work there were all warm and welcoming.
As I wandered away from the computers and through the clothing bin storage area to the foodbank pantry, I asked volunteers and employees what kept them going through long days.
The answers were almost unanimous.
Fellow volunteer Henare Haperou, a former hospitality worker who before this year hadn’t taken a holiday since 2016, said the foodbank was a nice change of pace.
“It’s different from any work I’ve done before. I know I’m helping people who need it.”
Salvation Army staff member Jojo Rogers described her work as “always rewarding”.
“Of course we get tired,” she said.
“But we don’t get tired of the work, you know?”
Foodbank co-ordinator Cory Lester’s endurance had a different secret. He held up a bottle of Culley’s No. 10 Carolina Reaper hot sauce and asked me what my spice tolerance was like.
Lester claimed the sauce was a better pick-me-up than a cup of coffee. He kept a bottle on hand at all times.
The hot sauce couldn’t hurt, I thought. After tasting a few drops and burning my tongue, I got to work with tears in my eyes.
We were surrounded on all sides by stacks of recycled cardboard boxes filled mostly with cans of baked beans, cereal boxes and pasta. There were also a couple of unsorted trolleys on the side of the room.
The room looked chaotic but as I expected, Lester had a system in place. He needed only a spare pair of hands to keep the system working.
First, the expiry date on each item needed to be checked. Then the donations were sorted into boxes according to categories including coffee, canned tomatoes, snacks, rice, and “things that would make good school lunches”.
Random items, like the odd packet of dried mushrooms and the extremely odd bag of Himalayan rock salt, went into their own small pile.
Once a box was filled, it was labelled according to its contents and the date it was packed then added to the foodbank’s supplies.
I worked in the foodbank from 9.30am to about 2pm with a break in the middle for lunch.
By the afternoon, I was feeling two of the side effects of volunteering: Aching feet and a busy brain.
After having added yet another packet of chips to the appropriate box, I asked if there was something the foodbank received too much of.
“I never like to say we have enough of anything,” Lester said.
“But I do think people don’t really know what to do with chickpeas.”
Lester said it was exciting when a variety of donations came in because then the foodbank could offer people diverse options for their meals and other needs.
“I’m glad we’re getting pet food donations now,” Lester said.
“People forget that pets need to eat too.”
Lester’s answers showed how the whole donation sorting and packing process was focused on making the foodbank easy to use.
I remembered how each slightly crushed packet of chips was received like a Christmas gift.
I looked at the boxes on the foodbank shelves, thoughtfully sorted with effort and elbow grease, then meticulously labelled.
I replayed conversations I’d heard throughout the day, all centred around meeting the needs of people in the community.
Combined, everything seemed to shout the same message: “We care.”
When I signed out for the day, I walked back through the offices. Everyone I met on my way out was still just as warm as they had been when I arrived that morning.
I was warm too, even as I walked down the street through the beginnings of the predicted storm.
Aching feet, busy mind, ready smile and light heart. All in a day’s volunteering.
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