All first year students take a leadership course during their fall semester, which is taught by Dr. Tony Rucci. In this class, each team of five students is required to do a community service project and write a reflection paper about their experience. My team chose to participate in Meals On Wheels. Meals On Wheels is a program where volunteers deliver food to the homes of those who cannot afford to buy food, and who are either partially or completely house-bound.
My team of five was assigned to two delivery routes and given instructions on where and how to deliver the meals. Some deliveries required signatures, and others did not. Hot meals and cold meals were sealed inside individual trays, and hot meals came with a slice of bread and an apple. Drink choices were skim or 2% milk.
I was prepared for the poverty we saw – probably better prepared than my teammates. I grew up in a town where poverty is normative, and I was a volunteer tutor in an inner-city school while I was an undergrad. I’ve seen hunger on children’s faces – in the ways they act and react – because I’ve studied next to and taught these children. I was also prepared for the dirt and decay we encountered in some homes because I worked for a cleaning company in the summers.
But what I was not prepared for was the complete and total isolation we encountered. Most of the people we brought meals to were elderly, and many were handicapped. I wondered where their children were – their grandchildren. I wondered it for at least the first hour. That’s how long it took me to realize that they probably didn’t have children. Or their children were dead. Or lived in another state and couldn’t afford to visit often or financially support their aging parents. And if you or your children can’t afford to hire an in-home nurse or move into assisted living or a nursing home, there isn’t much choice. You’re stuck.
I was also unprepared for how little food we actually delivered. I greatly respect what Meals On Wheels does, and I think it’s a wonderful program. I fully realize the funding and man-power limitations they face on a daily basis. I also understand that, as an Italian, my beliefs in portion size are dramatically skewed. But despite all of these things, the bottom line is that we only delivered one meal to each person. One meal per person. One meal per day.
Think about how much you eat in one day.
Our route took my team two hours to complete, from start to finish. Two hours and we got to go home to full cupboards, clean floors, and air conditioning. Two hours and we were back to being students, with all the academic, intellectual, social, and economic privileges that students have.
After an experience like that, you have to ask yourself what you’re doing with your life. How are you helping anyone besides yourself? And maybe you aren’t. Maybe you’re just trying to survive grad school. And maybe that’s the point.
Our leadership project was a good way for us to give back, to remind us of what is important, and to remember that despite the lengthy class discussions about profit margins, supply and demand curves, and increasing shareholders equity, money isn’t everything. It isn’t even close.