Last week I had the opportunity to be a part of the setup and distribution for the Tommy Toy Fund at the Food Center in New London. The things that I saw and experienced during those two days were both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and they’ve stayed with me, replaying in my head as I’ve gone about my day, washing dishes or having a conversation with someone. It’s not like this was the first time I ever served with a group of volunteers- I’ve volunteered in shelters, food banks, and kitchens, remodeled apartments, safe houses, and community centers, sorted food and clothes- but I’ll be honest, it had been a little while since I’d participated in this kind of direct service, and it’s easy to forget about how other people live when you’re wrapped up in your own life. Consequently, witnessing the situations of the families that came to the distribution hit me hard, in the stunned, oh my god, do other people know that this is happening right next door? kind of way. Which is why I’m glad to have the chance to write about it, because it helps me process everything and will hopefully get a reader or two thinking.
Monday was spent cutting packing tape and taking bulk shipments of toys out of the cardboard boxes they came in, then stacking them to be readily accessible. One of my favorite things about volunteering is the comradery that develops so quickly among strangers, and Monday was no exception. Together we devised efficient systems of getting the job done, people seamlessly stepped in to fill gaps, and everyone put in their full effort, with plenty of friendly teasing and laughter along the way. Two coach buses came from Foxwoods’ annual Stuff the Bus initiative, and they were indeed stuffed with toys, blankets, and diapers, from the luggage bays underneath to the overhead compartments, prompting me to take a second and marvel at the generosity of everyone who had come together to make this happen. We hadn’t even gotten to the distribution yet and one of our volunteers was already tearing up, just in awe of people’s willingness to give to others they might never meet. She explained to me that she was experiencing a rough time in her own life, just trying to figure things out, but this was something that made her feel good, that gave her hope and energy (this sense of purpose is also what I love about volunteering and why I encourage everyone to do it). I left Monday feeling proud of the work we had done.
Wednesday dawned bright and cold- and by cold, I mean the freezing, biting kind of cold that slices through your jacket. The stream of parents coming in to pick up toys was steady: we served close to 1,000 just that one day in New London. A few really stuck out to me- one woman was absolutely thrilled when she saw that we had the doll her daughter had been asking for, and one dad was confused when I gave him a bag of toys for each of his two kids: he kept asking “For me? All of it? Are you sure?” But the people that stuck out to me the most were a couple in their thirties who spoke mostly Spanish and had brought one of their daughters with them, who looked about six. She wore a pink sweater and stayed close to her parents, watching me shyly. When I had given them their toys, the dad asked if I could spare any hats for him and his wife, and I noticed that his wife didn’t have a jacket despite the bitter cold. I grabbed two hats, they thanked me, and I lost track of them as I was rotated to a different job by the door. A few minutes later, I saw the wife and daughter leave, but the dad hung back, hesitating. After a minute he came over and quietly asked if we had any lights or decorations. My heart sank. It hadn’t even occurred to me that if these families couldn’t afford gifts, they likely wouldn’t have decorations either. If you read my previous blog you’ll know that my family is kind of nuts about decorating for Christmas, so as weird as it sounds, the thought of that little girl not having holiday decorations in her home hit me harder than anything else I had seen that day. All we had were some ornaments that had been used to decorate the inside of the bus and had fallen off when we were unloading it. We pulled these out from under the table and offered them to the man, and he was so thankful.
He left, and I continued to take pictures and give out toys, but I spent the rest of the day feeling unsettled. Maybe I was so used to the idea of toy drives and adopt-a-family that I had stopped really thinking about why we have them and how they fit into the bigger picture of people’s lives. It took this other realization, even through something as simple as decorations, to shock me out of my comfort zone and make me imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. I was embarrassed that this incident came as such a surprise to me, and for while my thought process was one of outrage (Why do we have a system that lets this happen? Does everyone else know about this? Why didn’t this occur to me? Is anyone trying to fix this?) of guilt (It’s not fair that my family never had to worry about stuff like this; that little girl deserves to have just as nice holidays as I did growing up; why haven’t I given more time/money/work toward helping people in my own state, for goodness sake?) and of helplessness (We saw so many families, imagine how many of them don’t have Christmas trees or lights or anything, and it’s too late to do anything now). But all those emotions can be overwhelming and paralyzing rather than productive, which is why I revisited the Theodore Roosevelt quote, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”- it reminds me to pause and take stock of what is in my control rather than what isn’t. I’m thankful that I was able to be a part of Tommy Toy because it was a helpful reminder of why I give, and why I support organizations like United Way. And I guess I accidentally discovered something that I’m passionate about, that gets me fired up, even if it’s as seemingly frivolous as holiday decorations. Now that I know this, it’s something I can direct my energy into. So my message for you (aside from Tommy Toy is great and you should absolutely get involved next year because you’ll love it) is to ask yourself what gets you fired up- what are those things, as random as they may be, that you feel the need to address in your community? Because that’s how to start doing what you can, with that you have, where you are.