Spring 2010: talking with our volunteers

Volunteer Elizabeth Connell

Volunteer Elizabeth Connell

As many as sixty volunteers run The Food Pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Most are people who came to get food and stayed to help out; some are neighbors, and some are first-time visitors. Every one of them has a story, and together they create a living, growing community. This issue’s interview is with volunteer Elizabeth Connell.

I’m 19 now, and I live in the Mission, here in San Francisco. Working at The Food Pantry is the one thing in my week that I know I’m always showing up for: it doesn’t matter if I’m sick, if I’m tired, I want to be here. It’s my community.

I used to come to the pantry, starting when I was about ten years old. Some of the older Russian ladies, when I returned this year, were like, “Oh, we remember you when you were this tall.”

I was the bread girl. It was me and my sister, managing the bread table. When the pantry was first starting, it was crazy and chaotic: I was this little kid trying not to get pushed over by grownups. I was a really quiet, reserved kid and afraid of talking to older people. So for a while I was a pushover, and then I learned to be more assertive, like “Dude, you shouldn’t be taking extra bread.” It was hard–but it was kind of great to realize, wow, I’m just a kid, but we’ve got a part in making this happen. I remember how thankful people seemed to get food, and how the other volunteers were happy to have us around.

Nirmala [one of the volunteers] in particular, was a special friend to me. She taught me to do all kinds of things, she taught me Spanish, and when I had some troubles she was there to mentor me. I felt she really noticed.

Then things got bad at home and in school, and I went to a military style boarding school in Utah. You had to walk in lines with your head down, and your arms at your sides. Many of the other kids were hard-core, some had been in Juvi, and many had substance abuse problems or depression. I was one of the youngest ones there, and it was rough. But even when I was in treatment there, feeling lost, I’d sometimes remember working at the food pantry: I’d think: well, even though I’m not so great at other things, at least there’s a place where I used to help people. But there was a lot of times I thought, uh-oh, my life is not gonna end up good.

And then Nirmala sent me a card, it had birds on it, with something else from the food pantry. It all seemed so long ago, and I thought, “Oh my God, it’s Nirmala, I totally remember this woman!” It made my whole month.

Back then I was trying to run away from me. I couldn’t do that. I was going to have to deal with the crap of my life-family problems, a place to live, just getting by. After I got out of high school my foster funding stopped, and I was living on my own, and suddenly had no money. That scared child feeling came back. What I did was just try to find the legit thing, not get all future-tripped. I thought, I can land on my feet.

I realized people always want to talk to me: I can relate to anyone. I don’t go blabbing other people’s business, I’m a good listener. I like to help people. And I thought, maybe I’m not so helpless. I can do something that makes a difference. I decided I would move back and go to school in San Francisco and I enrolled in community college, with a major in psychology. And I came back to the food pantry to volunteer again.

People from all backgrounds come to the pantry because there’s food, it’s safe, it’s clean, it’s not some crap place. The way I see it, the past is the past: everyone should be able to have a new start, not be judged by their past. Maybe something bad happened to them. Maybe like me, they had to find a way to work things out. But hey, you get a new start. And if you get food, you can build your life in another direction.

Food is so expensive. If you’re not middle class, it’s so much more of a struggle just to live. When I was living with a friend over the summer, “couch-surfing”, her cousins and mama and grandma would go to the food pantry. Because, you know what? It’s really cool to be able to have cereal when you don’t have cereal. When you don’t have ten bucks, or even five. It’s like, wow, I got to get food today.

And then people can ask for help in other ways. So the pantry is like a support for them. It’s a support for me in many ways. For part of my life I was receiving, and now I’m giving. It keeps me in touch with the community. I don’t see myself as a scared little kid anymore. When I came back to the pantry, I knew how everything worked, and I became one of the leaders. I know it’s where I belong.

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