Volunteerism and Ice Cream: A reflection on my time at STL Food Angels

It has been 3 weeks since I transitioned out of working at STL Food Angels in order to spend some much-needed time with my family before returning to the clinical environment. This time has allowed me to reflect on my experiences at STL Food Angels. My major responsibilities revolved around handling volunteer logistics/planning. Volunteerism is a tricky thing. Often it can place communities at odds with one another, with one serving the other in the name of the former’s moral high ground. Volunteers can often be perceived and act as saviors that provide little to no sustainable aid to the communities they are “serving”. These were concerns that were on the forefront of my mind as I began my work with STL Food Angels. Our volunteers come from all walks of life, connected by their care for St. Louis. However, our volunteers were not facing the threat of becoming food insecure in the new age of the pandemic: whether it was being unable to go to the grocery store due to their medical risk or being financial unable to buy groceries. We were in the mission of helping those who were facing this very real threat. How could we develop sustainable change in connecting these very different groups of people?

Community service is word that provokes mixed feelings, because it can evoke the savior complex aforementioned. Instead, we wanted to be in the business of community building. Building a community means sustainable growth. It requires building connections across individuals in a way that acknowledges and celebrates differences and diversity. It is respectful and does not tear down/rebuild on top of existing communities. We volunteer to help because it provides connections with those that we otherwise would not have had a chance to interact with. We are building a community that includes us and them. Using our time to help those in need fosters a community that will benefit us all. One side is not better or more righteous than the other. In coordinating volunteers, that is what we strived to do. Seeing Washington University students and STL community members volunteer with enthusiasm and dedication was hopeful. There were relationships being built that had not been built before and we were doing it in a time that we are all experiencing collective trauma. There is much work left to be done but I am so grateful for my experience at STL Food Angels. In seeing our work and our volunteers, I am hopeful that even the largest of ice cream mountains is not insurmountable. We just need a whole community armed with bowls and giant spoons at the ready.