Why not volunteer? People always ask why you do something; a better question is why not? I didn’t start out as a willing participant in the world of volunteering. My journey started when I was mandated to do 50 hours of community service. It only took one day of volunteer work to realize my passion to fight poverty. I volunteered at the Charleston Food Pantry and after making sure all those families received their food, I couldn’t see a better way to spend my time. After going to the Food Pantry for a few weeks and also helping out at Standing Stone, I couldn’t stop thinking about what else can I do to help. On the last Saturday of every month at Standing Stone, I would help with E.A.T.S., or Eastern Illinois’s Hunger Action Team. We would serve a meal to anyone who came to Standing Stone. Standing Stone is also a thrift store in Charleston, so while E.A.T.S. participants received a free meal, they also had the chance to buy things that they needed at a discounted price. Standing Stone is located in one of Charleston’s most impoverished areas, so being able to provide something to people that they don’t normally get was a good experience. I felt like what I was doing was helpful and I was reaching a lot of people, but I just felt like I wasn’t doing enough.
The one hardship I’ve encountered doing volunteer work and trying to make a change is that it doesn’t happen overnight. There are so many stipulations put on things in the world of food and poverty. You have to find funding, get grants, find places or people that will donate, and follow the rules to the T. While doing summer meal we could only feed children under the age of 18. If adults wanted to eat then they had to pay $2. I know $2 doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but for some of these people that was the difference in having gas or eating dinner. Some days at E.A.T.S we’d only have 4 people; sometimes at summer meal we’d only have 10 kids show up for the day. What I had to remember was that not everyone looks at poverty in the same way. I see it as someone not having the means or necessities to support themselves or their families, while someone living this situation may perceive themself as not living in poverty or needing help. For example, if you were to travel to Tent City in St. Louis, to me they would look like they need help and they don’t have the necessities to live. Someone living in Tent City may feel comfortable and happy with the life they have. It’s just all about perception. I really had to recognize that, although I was doing something I felt proud of and I felt a lot of people benefited from, it didn’t mean I would be able to reach and help everyone when doing these projects. I could have stopped doing community service after finishing my hours because of these frustrations, but I was way too invested in making a change.
There are many different forms of service to fight poverty. I’m not a native of the Coles County area, but I consider helping to be universal. Out of the surrounding 14 counties, Charleston is the most impoverished. How could I hear that and not want to do something? I joined H.A.T., the Hunger Action Team, at Eastern Illinois University. I work alongside great people such as Dr. Gillespie and Rachel Fisher who are just as, or more so, determined to end poverty. I spent this past summer feeding kids in our community lunch program because most of them don’t always get that luxury. It wasn’t the biggest meal, or the most satisfying, but seeing their face light up every day when I got there and knowing I was making a difference in their lives was the most profound experience I’ve ever had. Coming from an impoverished background myself and knowing that it’s not a life anyone desires to live makes it so much more important to me. Providing opportunities and resources that people don’t have or can’t get anywhere else is a great feeling. I know my perception before I took a poverty class and became involved was that people are poor because they chose to be. The truth is though is that anyone can be “poor” whether they start out with that burden or end up with it. I also believed that they could just get food stamps (SNAP) or utilize other forms of assistance from the government like cash assistance. These are good forms of assistance, but they aren’t able to help everybody. For a one person household they can’t make more than $958 a month. After subtracting rent/mortgage, electricity, water, gas, and sewage there’s nothing left for food. If someone was to make $958.70 or $959 then they would be ineligible to receive benefits, so what do they do? The work we do tries to figure out what to do and how to help. There are so many people living above the poverty line that struggle. There are people living below the poverty line, receiving assistance, and still struggling.
My goal is just to do whatever I can to help whoever I can. Why not step up to the plate and help as many people as you can? I can’t picture my days not being spent making a difference and I’m excited to keep volunteering in the future.
Kendra currently works in the Student Community Service Office while attending Eastern Illinois University and majoring in Sociology. She specializes in helping run the Charleston Food Pantry on Thursdays evenings from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. every week during the school year. Kendra enjoys reading and poetry when she is not helping save the world.