It's that slightly bittersweet time of year for me; the holiday celebrations in America that began with Thanksgiving on Thursday this past week. I marked it in my heart, but as is often the case, I put the celebration aside. I live in England, with a British husband who has never really embraced my favourite holiday and children who have school that day, afternoon activities and homework due the following day. I comforted myself with phone calls to relatives in the States and a turkey breast for dinner that could be cooked at the last minute and eaten in front of the TV (we couldn't miss American X-Factor!) at 8 p.m. I made sure that there was some mention of gratitude; both the kind that you offer to others and the kind that you carry around in your heart. It was nice, but woefully inadequate compared to the big, warm, American celebrations that I remember, both with my own family and as a guest at a friend's home. Never mind. Maybe next year.
This year, I decided to do something for other people to mark the meaning behind Thanksgiving, which after all, was about giving thanks and sharing food with others in the community. Recently, a friend; Jane Milton, asked for volunteers to help out a charity called FareShare in their 1 Million Meal Appeal, which collects and redistributes surplus food within the UK. Their aim is to fight hunger and food waste in our society. Jane is perfectly positioned as an expert consultant to the food industry, to gather support and donations of fresh food from her professional contacts. However, this event was aimed at the public, asking for shoppers to purchase and donate longer-life items, such as tinned food, rice, pasta, coffee and tea, to be distributed to 35,000 people a day through 700 service organizations.
FareShare partnered with Sainsbury's to position volunteers in 600+ stores across the UK yesterday, to request and collect donations of food from people alongside their own grocery shopping. It was an interesting experience. I volunteered at my local store in Stanmore, where I'm an occasional shopper. I was positioned at one entrance, while an accountant named Bob was at the other. We were given everything we needed, including a large Volunteer sticker and a pile of leaflets and left to get on with it.
The "Ask" - I'm a friendly sort of person and don't find it difficult to approach people, but you have to be prepared for rejection of all sorts when asking for donations and you can't take it personally. (I must have spoken to at least 700 people in my 6-hour shift.) You also have to be careful not to make judgements about people based upon whether they donate; you can't really know what each person's circumstances are and can't spend their money for them. My approach was to ask if they would consider donating one food item to feed hungry people in the UK. I was careful to say "any donation, no matter how small, would be appreciated," and meant it. I was as effusive in my thanks for the donation of a single 25-pence can of tomato soup or bag of pasta, as I was for the donation of a £4 jar of coffee or box of tea bags. Still, I couldn't help but note that some of the biggest donations came from elderly people and others who didn't look like they had a lot of money, while some of the most well-turned-out shoppers completely blanked me. I also found it interesting how many people were keen that the food stay here in the UK, helping our residents, rather than being shipped out to feed people in other countries. There is a real sense that we have to take care of our own first, before helping others. I can't say I disagree, though I would like to believe we could help eradicate hunger globally if better systems were put in place.
Kids - My favourite donors were the parents who gave their children the food items to put in my trolley; a small act of giving plus the reward of positive feedback is a wonderful lesson for a child about values of generosity, sharing and caring. Additionally, a young teenage girl, who I hadn't stopped on her way in, handed me a bag of rice as she walked out with her sandwich lunch. One of my 7-year old art students quite excitedly brought me 3 cans of soup.
Bringing it home - Perhaps the greatest gift I both gave and received yesterday involved my own 12-year old daughter, who joined me at the end of my shift. Another fundraising activity was going on at the Customer Service desk behind me, so we donated a few pounds for her to have a henna tattoo painted on her arm, while I talked a young man on Work Experience with Sainsbury's through the approach to customers. Afterwards, we returned all of the food gifts which could not be accepted by FareShare and used our credit to purchase another 66 tins of food for the Million Meal Appeal, worth double that as Sainsbury's was matching customer donations. She has seen me budget carefully all year, making sometimes uncomfortable decisions about spending and saving for our own family. For once, this wasn't about us; it was about doing something for someone else for whom the discomfort could be going off to school in the morning hungry or not being able to stretch their weekly budget out to cover 7 days of nutritious meals for the whole family. She acknowledged that it was cool that I was willing to give my time for one day to help others, however "wierd" it may have seemed that Mum was wearing a Sainsbury's fleece (it was cold by that door!) and "cringe-y" that I was interacting with strangers. It proves my theory that talking about values is only worth so much; acting on them is where the real learning takes hold. So, next time, the kids are going to help too, because I didn't do anything yesterday that my children couldn't have done too.
Rewards - There are some people who don't think an act is truly generous if you are rewarded for having done it. I disagree entirely; the giver could have chosen not to give at all. Every one of yesterday's donors was rewarded with a smile, a thanks and a typically American "Have a great weekend." They deserved to feel good about their acts of kindness! I also made sure to thank the Sainsbury's employees who made the event run so well. After all, I was in their space all day and they supported me in every way. I also felt rewarded yesterday when I realized how much food had been donated as a result of my actions. I felt rewarded by the supportive comments I received from some of the donors, one of whom told me I was doing "a beautiful thing." Mostly, I felt good that I had taken myself out of my little world, with my various personal concerns, for one day and focussed on other people and what they need. When I expressed that positivity, there was a real buzz around us that visibly lifted everyone. That was all the thanks I needed.