Through my study abroad program affiliate, I was offered the opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen here in London. I jumped at the chance to give back to the city that has already given me so much. The soup kitchen is at the American International Church, which is only about 15-20 minutes away by bus from where I live. As said on the website, “The Soup Kitchen, founded in 1986, is a resource for the homeless, elderly, lonely and poor in Central London, providing free hot meals, clothes and toiletries, and creating a sense of belonging and community.” At first, I was hesitant to commit to this because I know that I would be doing it alone (without any of my friends). I was paired with one other girl, also from my program affiliate, but she doesn’t study at my school, so I had no idea who she was or what she would be like. I got over my fear, though, and that turned into excitement. I had always wanted to volunteer at a soup kitchen because I had always participated in canned food drives during my school years, and I was excited to see where all the food goes and what they do with it.
I started the morning by helping prepare some buttered bread. After more volunteers arrived, I was moved to the “hall” where they serve the food. I set up the tables and chairs and measured tea and coffee into cups so that they could more easily be served once people started to arrive. Basically what I did was serve drinks. My morning consisted of saying, “Would you like tea or coffee? Milk or sugar?” probably 100 times. It was very repetitive, but seeing how much happier these people got once they got a warm drink and soup was worth it.
People always say that volunteering is such a rewarding experience and that you feel like a new and amazing person afterwards. I can corroborate this completely. It had been a long time since I’d really had the chance to volunteer, and I’d never done anything like this before. I’ve volunteered a lot in my hometown, but Newtown, CT, doesn’t really consist of that many homeless people. I’ve never encountered poverty and homelessness on such a large scale. And despite clearly being without homes, these people were in such good spirits. It really reminded me to be thankful for what I have. These people basically have nothing except what they can carry in their small backpacks, but they still took the time to ask about my day and how I was doing, to thank me for helping out, and to crack jokes from time to time. When I put my life in perspective, I really have nothing to complain about. When we talked about the global community, we said that it was a group of intertwined individuals working towards common goals. That’s kind of what we do when we volunteer – we work together with other people, both co-volunteers and those we are helping, to reach a goal, whether it is to further a cause, build a house, or simply give someone the nutrition they need to survive another day.
This really improved my study abroad experience. It reminded me why I’m really here – to make a positive impact on the global community. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been nothing but a nuisance to London, like when I act like a stereotypical American and you can tell everyone is rolling their eyes. Since I’ve been living here for so long already, almost 3 months, I felt bad that I had done nothing to give back. Volunteering here really made me feel like a true part of the community. I would do it over and over and over again.
This is a picture of me and the other girl from my program affiliate, named Katie. We helped to sort the food pantry before people started arriving at the soup kitchen. There were so many different types of food and so many cans of everything you could imagine – beans, chicken, sauces, etc. I was completely awestruck. What touched me even more was realizing that all of this food comes from donations. Those cans that we keep in the back of our pantries, unused, for far too long, are the food that keeps so many people alive. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, ““Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” It only took 4 hours of my life to make such a profound impact on the lives of around 70 homeless Londoners. And it takes literally two seconds to grab a can from the pantry and donate it. We all have the ability to make an impact. It’s just about who takes the initiative to make that impact.