As a resident of Portland, Oregon, I have always been aware of the large population of homeless people in my area. On every trip to the grocery store, car ride to school, or stroll around a park, I’d see dirty tents and shopping carts parked underneath bridges, people holding signs at traffic stops and huddled on sidewalks, imploring the passerby for help. It became an almost daily sight, and soon it was nothing peculiar. It was part of my city. It was part of my home. It was part of my life. It was because of this that I was shocked and a little ashamed to hear that Oregon had the fourth largest population of homelessness in the United States. Even though I had witnessed all the evidence around me, the issue had never seemed so heavy and intense. The numbers were extremely overwhelming: 13,000 people homeless, almost half the number living unsheltered on the streets. Between 2015 and 2016, the population had increased by two percent, and, especially in Portland, rent continued to increase steadily. The crisis seemed simply hopeless.
Recently, I volunteered at an organization called Potluck In The Park, for my highschool’s key club community service hours. I knew this organization helped the homeless by serving hot meals, and I thought it to be nothing more than a good two and a half hour experience where I could help the community while getting my volunteer hours, but it was so much more than I expected.
Potluck In The Park started 28 years ago in the heart of Downtown Portland, Oregon. It began with a group of people who would gather every Sunday at 3 pm to serve fresh, hot meals to the homeless, or anyone who needed a meal. It was slowly organized into a nonprofit organization, continuing its Sunday meal tradition, fighting hunger and serving the community. Each week, approximately 400-600 people are fed, perhaps even more.
I arrived at the winter site of Potluck In The Park, held at the underside of a large bridge in Downtown Portland. I signed in, put on a pair of gloves, and was assigned to a table where I would be serving chicken stir fry. At first, I was a little wary, and just a bit nervous. There were so many people and so many voices, dogs barking, and the roar of a train passing by. But there were also light conversations, smiles, and laughter.
As I started getting into the rhythm of things, I realized I was beaming uncontrollably. With each plate, people’s weary faces seemed to melt into easy smiles, and something as simple as a roll of bread or an orange would bring about a dozen “God bless you”s and “Thank you so much, deary”s. When I gave one man an extra helping of food he looked at me in the eye and grinned so wide I couldn’t help but grin back. “Thank you,” he said earnestly. “I’ve got five mouths to feed and you don’t know how much this means to me.”
I suppose I was shocked. I didn’t think we were making much of a difference. But my service seemed to have a huge impact on those I served, and, for the second time, I felt ashamed. I hadn’t been helping my community as much as I could have with my excuse being, “What difference would one person make?” But I realized that I was utterly wrong. Just by being there, serving and smiling, telling people “no problem” and “have a good day”, I was fighting the issue that I’d deemed “hopeless”.
I talked to the managers of Potluck In The Park, and some had been serving every Sunday for over twenty years. There was one man I met, Michael, who explained that he’d been in a very tough spot, and that the only way he could feel truly happy was by volunteering At Potluck In The Park every Sunday. He admitted that it gave him a feeling of purpose, and he knew it was something he just had to do. “Why not serve the community if you have the opportunity to do it?” he told me, and those words seemed to stir something inside me.
While cleaning up, sweeping the floors and picking up trash, I looked around in the lighthearted atmosphere to see people laughing and hugging. They probably had many things to worry about, yet I was so grateful that I could help in a way to solve at least one of their problems of the day. I think, though it sounds cliche, that something changed in me that day. I realized I was so sheltered from the problems around me, even though I was subconsciously aware of them. I needed to put myself out there. Even if it felt like I wasn’t doing much, just serving food and smiling, I realized I was making a difference: one meal at a time.
Elyse Nah, Grade 9
Sunset High School