Next week is our bi-monthly meal team serving a hot nutritious meal to the youth of Teen Feed. This is something we’ve been doing as a family for well over a decade, and is something I always really look forward to. As a reminder, as I’ve mentioned this group before, Teen Feed is an organization that feeds homeless and at-risk youth, 7 nights a week, 365 days a year. Each night, the meal is totally handled by different volunteer teams who purchase, prepare, serve, and clean up that night’s meal. Years ago, when we first got started, we joined different meal teams from a few of our different synagogue communities. Some of these groups have monthly (or more) meals and there were always lots of opportunities to help. Over time, however, we realized we’d become frustrated with some of the ways some groups limited participation, and it was also at a time I was serving on the board of Teen Feed, and had a better understanding of the inner workings. So, it was at this time we decided we would start our own team – because – why not!?
One of the primary reasons we volunteer was to model for our kids, that no matter what a family’s situation, there are always ways to “give back” and this was a value we wanted the boys to hold high. As long as our kids have been around and even before, we volunteered in soup kitchens helping serve meals, the kids in slings on our hips, or playing in another room. But as soon as they were able, they were right there with us, prepping, cooking, and preparing the meal, as well as serving and cleaning. This has become a family tradition, and while now the kids are grownups themselves, we all still converge for this wonderful tradition.
Early on in our meal team history, we invited some of the kids’ friends and parents to join us. This was an opportunity to help expose folks who otherwise might not experience, face to face, what homelessness can really look like. It was an opportunity to really “get their hands dirty” in a controlled way that exposed them to something bigger and greater than themselves. We were blessed to have been able to send our kids to private schools but that also meant their community tended to be one of affluence. In fact, we used to joke that our family helped represent economic diversity at the kids’ schools!
In time, our team booked out months in advance, as space was always limited, and those who joined us, all had a great experience. We always made it a point to talk with the kids volunteering, both our own and their friends, to see if they could distinguish amongst the youth present, who was homeless, who was a volunteer, and who was a staff person. While sometimes it was clear who was a guest that evening, more often than not, it wasn’t so easy. We’ve had evenings where almost everyone present seemed well dressed, clean, and well spoken. Those are the times when you really realize that the face of what homelessness really looks like is not as clear as one might think.
For us, what was really the most important, was to inspire conversations between parents and their kids about a topic they may not otherwise have ever been exposed to, let alone had the experience of serving face to face. While our expectations of what might come of this were conservative, we nonetheless wanted to provide the opportunity for others to share in what we have come to see as an obligation on our part. Being able to truly “serve” is an incredible feeling that sadly many people never get to experience. Hands down, the folks who have joined us over the years have expressed their appreciation for having had the opportunity to join us.
We call our team Kavamata, a name we came up with that is a portmanteau, or a combination of two words. The words are Hebrew and are kavana, which means “intention”, and the word matana, which is “a gift”. The word to us means “an intentional gift”, which rang true for how we thought of all the volunteering we have done over the years and was also a dream we had for, at some future point in our lives, forming our own non-profit, to be able to help bring the opportunity to be of service, to others as well.
As has also been our tradition – we have picked up Christmas Eve as an additional evening to serve. We always figured that since it’s not a holiday we celebrate, and since it will have meaning to most of the guests coming, we would offer to pick it up as an additional night of service. Interestingly, this has been, by far, our most popular opportunity as a few families we know, who do celebrate Christmas, have enjoyed and appreciated the ability to spend Christmas Eve in the service of others. This year, Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, and a number of our regulars of the last few years have other things going on in their lives – so I want to put out an offer, for anyone interested in joining us, please just reach out and let me know. There is still limited space, we can accommodate up to 15 people, even though that’s really more than twice what we need, but we have also historically prepared 75 gift bags, that we distribute to the guests as well, and therein lies yet another opportunity to be of service.
And whether you choose to join us or not, I’d appreciate knowing other things people do to be “of service”.