As my birthday approached in December 2019, I reflected on meaningful ways to celebrate. It was going to be during the December holidays when several international students return to their home countries to escape the frigid winter of Minnesota. But this time, quite a few of my friends had stayed back, like me, working on their graduate school research work.
Taking inspiration from another friend who had gathered friends to cook a meal for people at a homeless shelter, I started researching shelters that were looking for volunteers.
I settled on Simpson’s Housing Services, which is a non-profit that provides emergency housing services, single adult supportive housing, and family supportive housing to people facing homelessness in Minneapolis and surrounding cities. According to 2015 data, there were 15000 people facing homelessness on any given night in Minnesota and 40000 throughout the year, due to various reasons such as lack of affordable housing, lack of employment, abuse, or chronic health conditions. Simpson’s aimed to provide transitional housing to these people while helping them secure permanent housing.
They had a meal volunteer program through which groups of volunteers could arrange to cater a meal for 110 residents at the shelter. Volunteer engagement was key to ensuring that the residents received 3 meals a day, as part of the transitional housing program.
After I reached out to the volunteer coordinator Matthew, we set up a time for me to visit the kitchen at the shelter. During this visit, I was oriented to the equipment and storage facilities my group could use as we were preparing the meal; stoves, ovens, serving utensils, casseroles, washbasins, and all. We also discussed ideas for what could go on the menu; Matthew made recommendations from what past volunteers had served and even sent me a guiding document with recipes and amounts of each ingredient to suffice for 110 people.
This guide document was going to be immensely helpful for me, who mostly cooked just for myself or at most, 4 friends at a time. The guide recommended that the meal consists of the main course, starch, salad, and a small dessert. Since this was my first time organizing such an effort, I chose dishes with minimal preparation and that would make it easier to prepare in bulk: pasta with marinara sauce and vegetable salad.
I also included dinner rolls as starch, brownies, and oranges for dessert, all of which were store-bought. Also, each volunteer group was requested to provide 8 gallons (30L) of milk. The guidance document also had very clear protocols as to how we were to operate in the kitchen and serve the residents. A maximum of 12 volunteers was recommended. We would prepare the meal and set up to serve between 5-6:45 pm, serve between 7-7:45 pm, and clean up by 8-8:15 pm.
My friends and I pre-assigned our duties so that we could get to work soon after arriving and be ready to serve on time. We had distributed the purchase of required groceries among ourselves. 2 people made the pasta, 2 people tossed the salad, 1 person was in charge of washing the dishes, 1 in charge of laying out the dinner rolls and pasta. We evenly distributed serving duty and cleaning duty.
In the end, there were enough leftovers for at least another meal for the same number of people. What I learned and appreciated about this experience was the system that kept us accountable to our duty as volunteers; regular communication from Matthew, the orientation session and clear instructions in the guide book on what we needed to do to help Simpson’s fulfil their mission, even if just for one evening.
This system helped them engage volunteers daily to provide meals for their residents, and without volunteer engagement, it would be challenging for the shelter to obtain funding to provide regular meals for the over 1000 homeless people they provided with transitional housing in a year.