© Nathan Liewicki
Justin Crann spent half a day volunteering with the Riverside Mission, cleaning the kitchen and serving areas and meting out soup.
In Their Shoes is a new series that will feature in the weekend edition of the Times-Herald on an irregular basis.
The premise is simple: a Times-Herald reporter will spend some time in a very different role, and then will recount their experiences.
This week, reporter Justin Crann volunteered at the Riverside Mission for a lunch service. Here is his account of his experience.
When I called to offer my services as a volunteer at Riverside Mission a week ago, executive director Scott Elger suggested I wear clothes I’d feel comfortable washing.
“When you serve meals, sometimes there will be a little splash of something that will get on your shirt,” he told me, adding that I’d be working hard as well and so I’d probably bust a sweat.
I had no idea how right he’d be.
I arrived outside the shelter and community kitchen at around 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning, ready to work, and I followed his advice: I was wearing a blue T-shirt, my oldest pair of jeans and some runners.
Elger wasn’t there to see I had taken his words to heart, though. He had taken the day off to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife. Instead, I was invited in by Dave Harrison, the organization’s operations manager.
I figured the Mission would take it easy on the new guy, but right off the jump I was handed a bottle of cleaner and a cloth and told to wipe down the tables. After that, I was handed a broom and told to sweep the floors, and when I finished that task, I was handed a mop and bucket and told to wash them.
It wasn’t exactly the sort of work I anticipated doing in a community kitchen, but there was definitely a sense of fulfilment when I peered out at the shiny floor.
Others noticed, too. One of the volunteers — a man of the cloth named Father John — apologized as he walked across the clean floor.
“There’s nothing better than walking on a wet floor,” he added.
“Maybe I should take off my shoes and wash my feet!”
That’s the thing about Father John: he likes to joke. He comes in every Wednesday to share his sense of humour with the other volunteers.
One of those volunteers is a man I’ve renamed Hank.
He was kind, and more than willing to join in on Father John’s comedy routines as a regular Abbott to his Costello.
When I asked if I could take his picture while he prepared some egg salad sandwiches on counters I had just cleaned, he politely refused.
“I don’t do this for praise or recognition,” he told me. “I do this for a different reason.”
I could respect the sentiment — in fact, it seemed to be a sort of mantra in the kitchen and as part of a team of four, including the lunch chef/kitchen manager Rachel, I almost felt bad that I’d be breaking that rule by following up my experience with an article.
When it was time to serve the meals, I was thankful to be handed a ladle — Father John would be doing the dishes, so my job was to serve the soup Rachel has prepared.
The Mission’s clients filed in, most offering a thanks as they walked to their tables with their food.
I felt bad stealing the credit for a meal I played little part in preparing — it was Rachel’s food and Hank’s prep work on the sandwiches that were the stars — but the other volunteers made me feel every bit a part of their team.
As the meals were served and lunch service wrapped up, I realized just how gratifying the experience could be.
As a journalist, I rarely get to see the tangible impact of my work. It was different working in the kitchen, where a shiny floor and a happy client were very physical manifestations of the value of what I had done. And serving — at least on a single-meal basis, and on that particular day — proved to be a lot of fun, especially for someone who has never worked in a kitchen in any capacity.
When I left the kitchen after another round of table-washing, I realized something else: Elger wasn’t wrong.
At some point while I was serving the soup, I managed to end up wearing a bit of it on my sleeve.
I laughed, because I knew it would wash out — and though I was wearing a dirty shirt, I felt pretty clean.
Find Justin Crann on Twitter.