In Their Shoes: Dirty shirt, clean feelings

Justin Crann
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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.

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Recent comments

  • richie snyder
    May 07, 2015 - 09:30

    hey id like to say what I read was moving I once sated there it was the best thing I could have ever dun I thank the mission for all they do

  • Glenn
    July 13, 2014 - 11:26

    Great article Justin We all should do something like that . We would be more great full with what we have

  • Glenn
    July 13, 2014 - 11:18

    Everyone of us need to do something like what you did Justin, to experience what us like you stated "walk in their shoes "and to realize how thankful we all should be with what most of us have. Great article Justin