Volunteering across the country is a privilege. Entering a community and being welcomed by the local residents is a gift. The new friendships that we’ve made, whether lasting or ephemeral, are cherished.
Sometimes the road leads to the unknown. A new state, a new town, a new face. There’s an excitement to it; a sense of exploration. Sometimes, however, the road leads to something more recognizable. The comfort of a familiar face. The embrace of an old friend. Our lives are decorated by our relationships. We are more than just a repository of our experiences. We are also an amalgamation of the stories, lessons, and support from our friends.
Recently, in both the prairieland of Illinois, and the color splashed mountains of Vermont, we’ve enjoyed melding our volunteering quest with reconnecting with friends. Working on projects that mean something to them in their own communities was an impactful way to connect; to create fun memories and give back to the place that’s their home, and that we called home, if only for a day. It is a special dynamic and it brings an inimitable connection to the volunteering.
In Paris, Illinois, a small town that is the epitome of mid-western life, with a storybook downtown, surrounded by seemingly endless farmland, a need for support still exists. Despite the late summer walls of corn that surround the city and serve as a reminder of our nation’s abundance, many people here still go hungry. They still require the sense of community that breaking bread with others provides; an antidote the isolation and desperation that poverty so cruelly instills.
So once a week, at the Paris Community Kitchen, volunteers prepare warm meals that are served to those in need. Seated family-style at large round tables, they’re able to talk to each other, connect with others, and enjoy what so many of us take for granted. The meals are brought to them at the table, creating a restaurant-like experience. Letting them focus on the meal and the community it creates. Hopefully nourishing both their bodies and souls.
In the kitchen and the dining room, we worked with our friend Marie, who’s called Paris home for nearly her entire life. With a gleam in her eye, and a charming smile, she introduced us to her fellow Parisians. We served meals, we laughed, we cleaned, we worked. We were together, again, relishing in the joys of friendship. Around us children and families were volunteering too. It was heartening to see them all supporting their neighbors while the kids learned about the importance of giving time to help others and maybe finding out that time spent with friends and family can be spent strengthening others.
A thousand miles to the east, near the shores of Lake Champlain, stooped over a boardwalk that created a path through a canopy of trees, we found ourselves hard at work, making repairs to rotted pieces of wood, under the expert supervision of our friend, Guy. Reminiscent of a few years ago when we first met while working in a small garden nestled in the Oregon forests, we were once again covered in dirt, improvising solutions, and laughing our way through the job.
Now living in Vermont, and serving as the Program Director for the South Hero Land Trust, Guy is tasked with protecting farmland, woodland, natural and recreational areas, and other open spaces which are vital to the heritage and quality of life of South Hero, and community just north of Burlington. These lands are an integral part of the fabric that makes up not just South Hero, but the bucolic identity that is so important to Vermont. They are an essential connection to both our natural and agricultural history. To see the orchards, woods, and trails that the Land Trust protects is to look back in time. To speak with those that protect it, and the farmers and residents that benefit from it, is to look toward the future.
In the past ten months, we’ve come across groups that became friends after volunteering together in a shared interest. We’ve joined families that have made the decision to add this element of service to their core values and their shared experiences. We’ve worked at events and watched people come together to support a cause and celebrate their communities. We’ve made friends, and seen old ones. We’ve worked together. We’ve laughed. We’ve helped others. It has been nourishing to our souls and our minds. It’s been an affirmation of the essential connection that lasting friendships bring.
As Abraham Lincoln once said, “I have stepped out upon this platform that I may see you and that you may see me, and in the arrangement I have the best of the bargain.”