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Volunteer work a surprisingly satisfying way to spend time

POSTED March 23, 2010 11:28 p.m.

Turlock has a reputation of being a sleepy berg, but is it truly boring?
In his efforts to find out just how much there really is to do in Turlock, Journal reporter Alex Cantatore put out a call asking local clubs and groups to invite him to spend a day as honorary member. The following is the first of many tales of activities here in Turlock that the average citizen may not think about.
This week: Serving dinner at a homeless shelter.

A few weeks ago, I had visions of a packed social calendar. I saw myself being invited to all sorts of exciting, luxurious affairs happening just underneath the surface here in Turlock.
Then Barbara Milgrom stepped in.
“Bored?” she wrote, admonishing me like a lazy high schooler. “I’ll put you to work.”
My hopes of an invitation to the Turlock champagne and caviar club meeting were quickly dashed.
Work? This was not what I had intended for this series. This was supposed to be fun, a way to trick my editor into paying for me to go out on the town once a week.
Apparently Milgrom was not privy to my plans.
So, Thursday night, I found myself approaching the doors of the We Care Foundation winter emergency shelter — a men’s homeless shelter on Broadway. I was to help serve dinner alongside members of Milgrom’s church, the Valley Hope Community Church, located on Hawkeye Avenue.
I didn’t know what to expect. I’d had minimal contact with Milgrom before the day of the event, and I learned just hours before I was set to arrive that Milgrom herself would not be able to attend.
I shivered with dread as I walked through the entryway. My mind went through one of those slow-motion dream sequences, offering me images of a night spent washing dishes, cooking gruel and mopping floors.
But, as the members of Valley Hope welcomed me, a sweet smell of meat, onions and ketchup filtered through the air.
Ah, the scent of meatloaf, the sort of thing a Midwestern mother’s son can’t help but feel nostalgic over. Perhaps this dinner wouldn’t be so bad after all.
I chatted with the Valley Hope contingent, quickly learning that that the group serves “probably the best” food at the shelter. Tales of past meals of lasagna, garlic bread and salad left my mouth watering.
Milgrom herself does all the cooking — including Thursday’s feast of meatloaf, green beans, mashed potatoes and chocolate chip cookies — while her fellow churchgoers help with the groceries and the labor of serving. Milgrom approached the congregation with the idea of helping out at We Care, and a group stepped up to make the biweekly meals a reality. Other groups provide food on other nights of the week in a big rotation.
Talk of the meal’s mechanics was really just background chatter at first, though. I’m not sure if it would even have come up had I not been around. The dinner crew was more concerned with joking and catching up on the week’s events, just like any group of friends.
My task for the evening — other than staying out of the way as much as possible — was the same as the other men in the group. All I had to do was pour drinks and make conversation with the homeless, the Valley Hope folks said, while the women dealt with the nitty-gritty of serving food.
My face paled as I instantly had flashbacks to my brief time spent working at the Olive Garden in college. I saw the glass of cranberry juice falling from my hand, splattering across a table and staining the white shirts of an entire party.
I put on the rubber gloves we all would wear and tightly clutched a gallon of fruit punch, waiting in a cold sweat for the homeless to step through the doors. I was surprised at what I saw.
I’ve seen homeless people around Turlock before, but the group at We Care on Thursday was comprised of men from seemingly all walks of life. I saw a man who could have been a college professor, who sat down quietly and started reading. I saw a man who could have served me my Starbucks that morning.
The homeless men weren’t just the sort of people I often see around town — though there were a few sporting the typical look. A large number of the homeless were seemingly just like you or me, but perhaps a little more down on their luck.
In a daze I started pouring fruit punch, filling cups with the ease of an experienced server. At every table I was met with massive smiles and genuine thank-yous.
Sure, I was working. But I didn’t mind it. The constant pouring was rewarding somehow. It was a good feeling to help meet someone’s needs.
Before I knew it, an hour had flown by. The homeless had wolfed down plate after plate of food. They enjoyed plenty of fruit punch to wash it all down, keeping me on my toes throughout the meal service.
I can see why people enjoy volunteering at We Care. There are a few minutes to socialize with your fellow servers, but the satisfaction that comes from serving the homeless is what makes the activity stand out.
Everyone likes to do the right thing, and serving the homeless is clearly one of the most right things a person can do.
The folks from Valley Hope were a bit disappointed when it all was over, as Thursday’s was the last meal they will serve this year. The shelter is set to end its winter run on March 31.
I have to admit I was a bit disappointed too. I certainly would have come along for another night of service.
I reluctantly waved good-bye and got into my car, starting the short drive back to work. I began to ponder just what I would say about my night spent serving, how I would characterize it.
In the end, I settled on this: I don’t know if I’d classify my experience as sheer, unbridled fun. But it most certainly was not boring.
And for Turlock, that’s not half bad.
To reach the We Care Foundation, call 664-2003. To contact Turlock Gospel Mission, a homeless provider that serves meals year-round, call 409-4641. The United Samaritan Foundation, another homeless provider, can be reached at 668-4853.
To contact Alex Cantatore, or to invite him to spend a day with your club or group, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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