Week 1, Day 4: John Cook at Catholic Charities of West Tennessee

Hunger is a feeling everyone can identify with. Whether it’s because you’re trying to lose some weight, or perhaps just too busy and had to skip a meal, at some point in your life you’ve experienced that empty, painful feeling. However, most of us overcome this feeling relatively quickly. We just walk to our refrigerator or pantry and whip something up. Or perhaps we drive to the nearest McDonalds or Burger King for a quick bite to eat. (To make it clear, I do not condone that kind of behavior, that’s just my prerogative.) (And spare me whatever Bobby Brown reference you’re thinking of right now.) It’s not a problem for most of us to feed ourselves. However, I learned that 1 in 6 people in our community do not know where they are going to get their next meal. This is a fact that I have a hard time wrapping my head around.

Today I went to the Catholic Charities of West Tennessee to help in their food pantry. The organization is located near downtown Memphis and occupies the building formerly known as Sacred Heart, a school for girls that shut down sometime in the 1960s. When I arrive, my first instinct is to explore the old building by myself and perhaps stumble upon some secret passageways, or some ghosts. But, I resist the urge and go meet with Ms. Peggy, the volunteer coordinator. Ms. Peggy briefly tells me about the mission of the organization and introduces me to a couple of “more experienced” volunteers, Andrea and Genevieve. The mission of the Catholic Charities of West Tennessee is to reach out to the community and provide food and assistance to those who are in need, and do so at no cost to them.

My job today is to organize and re-stock the shelves of the pantry, and prepare bags of groceries for individuals and families who need it. My first task is simple enough: bag and refrigerate an entire mountain of sweet potatoes that were donated by a local vendor. (Did you know that sweet potatoes are one of the most nutritionally perfect foods in existence? AND they happen to be the ONLY food that I cannot stand the taste of.)


Baggin’ sweet potatoes

This was a fun task for me because I didn’t have to concentrate too much on what I was doing, which gave me the chance to ask questions and get to know Andrea and Genevieve. We all have a lot in common and get along great. After I was done putting away the sweet potatoes, Andrea and Genevieve showed me how to put together groceries for different sized families. A lot of planning goes in to each bag of food to ensure that each family has what they need. They also taught me about “walking bags”, which are bags with food that doesn’t need to be cooked, designed especially for the homeless.


Andrea and Genevieve re-stocking the pantry

The charity also offers a clothes pantry, a mobile food pantry (for those in need who don’t have transportation to the facility), and even a job placement department where people can go for help finding employment. The Catholic Charities of West Tennessee seems to have thought of everything. Working with Andrea and Genevieve, and seeing the enthusiasm on their faces made me appreciate the purpose of their mission. I’m glad I got to spend some time here and I’m excited to see how the Catholic Charities of West TN will affect the community in the future.


Donated goods



Are you a fan of Volunteer Odyssey? Visit us on Facebook and Twitter!


Week 1, Day 3: John Cook at Memphis Botanic Gardens

I have been giving this a lot of thought. A LOT of thought: I’m going to become a farmer.
That’s right! I’m going to become a farmer and I’m going to grow ALL kinds of things too! Tomatoes? Duh. Carrots? Absolutely! Strawberries?! Get out of here! Of course I’m going to grow strawberries! And everything else in between!! Cucumbers! Zucchini! BELL PEPPERS of every color you can THINK of!! (except perhaps blue) PLUS- so many different herbs you won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
There’s just one problem: I don’t know HOW to do any of this. The only experience I’ve ever had with growing anything (other than an amazing beard) was a few weeks ago when I did this to an avocado pit:

Avocado farming.

Avocado farming.

Until today! I showed up at Memphis Botanic Garden in East Memphis, a 96 acre botanic garden that aims to enhance people’s lives by connecting them with nature and increasing awareness and appreciation of our environment. I met with a man named Manny, who has what seems like the best job in Memphis. He showed me around the place and then brought me to the volunteer greenhouse. It has everything you can think of growing in it.


Volunteer greenhouse

After I looked around at all the different plants, it was time to get some work done. Another employee, Stella, and another volunteer, Will, joined Manny and I in the greenhouse. Then, Manny showed me how to properly take tiny plants out of their tiny pots, and then place them in slightly bigger pots. It might sound easy, but it was the perfect task for a beginner like myself. Stella and Will, who have much more experience than I do, worked along side of me but were re-potting and grooming bigger and exoticker. (yea, exoticker is a word, don’t try to look it up) We stood there, working with our plants and chatting about music, travel, school…you name it. I was having fun AND I was completely relaxed. Stella even referred to her work as “therapeutic”.

Stella during a therapy sesh

Stella during a therapy sesh

After about an hour of re-potting the tiny plants, Manny decided that it was time for me to graduate and move on to the plants that Stella and Will were working on. Manny showed me a few tricks, and within no time I felt like a pro. Well, maybe not a pro, but definitely more knowledgeable than I was earlier in the day.


Manny and his green thumbs



Now, it might take me awhile to become a full-fledged farmer, so don’t come knocking on my door demanding salads quite yet. Jeez, people, give me some time! Meanwhile, I’ll be at Memphis Botanic Gardens learning a few things from Manny, Stella, and Will.


Are you a fan of Volunteer Odyssey? Visit us on Facebook and Twitter!

Week 1, Day 2: John Cook at St. Mary’s Catholic Church Soup Kitchen

For over 100 years, St. Mary’s Catholic Church has been operating a soup kitchen to feed the poor and hungry.  Today, I got a chance to be a part of the legendary operation:


St. Mary’s Cathedral

First and foremost, I would like to explain that I have volunteered places in the past and many times felt like I was in the way – “too many cooks in the kitchen” type scenarios.  But not today!  Mr. Ron, the volunteer director, greeted me at the door, introduced himself, and immediately put me to work.  THAT is exactly what I wanted. No beating around the bush, no standing around wondering what I should be doing—BOOM: Sandwich makin’ time!  And if there’s one thing I know, it’s sandwiches.  I enjoyed sitting at the table, listening to the other volunteers tell me a little about themselves, and secretly trying to compete with them as to who (to whom?) can make the most sandwiches.  I had to bite my tongue to keep from asking “What number are you on?”.  I didn’t want to come off as that crazy so soon.


My perfectly made sandwich

After the sandwich making competition, I was asked to hand out pastries as the patrons lined up for coffee.  I didn’t have much interaction with them, just a smile and a “good mornin’!”  My next task was to ladle piping hot soup into approximately 200 cups.  Thanks to the assistance and steady hands of my good friend Sarah, we managed to stack 5 trays of soup cups on top of each other without spilling a drop.  The other volunteers and I then worked in assembly line fashion to give each patron a hefty cup of soup, 2 sandwiches, and a dessert. It took about an hour for everyone to shuffle through, eat, and leave.


Ladlin’ like a BOSS

It wasn’t until I got home and walked through my front door that I suddenly gained some perspective about my experience. I have a roof over my head, food in my fridge, and a warm bed to sleep in at night. It’s difficult to complain about anything going on in my life after helping out at St. Mary’s, serving those in need.  My experience reminded me that nothing should be taken for granted and no matter how hard things might seem from time to time, there are plenty of people that would love to be in my shoes.


Handin’ out food



Are you a fan of Volunteer Odyssey? Visit us on Facebook and Twitter!


Week 1, Day 1: John Cook at Meals On Wheels


So here I am, my first day of my Volunteer Odyssey experience.  Today I am delivering lunches for MIFA Meals on Wheels., a program that provides lunches for homebound senior citizens.


MIFA Meals on Wheels

MIFA Meals on Wheels

I show up to the MIFA office around 9:15 am to “check in”, load up a couple coolers of food, and figure out my route.  My route consists of around 12 seniors who all live around the same area.

As I approached my first stop, I became a bit overwhelmed.  I started asking myself a lot of questions  :

“What if I do it wrong?”

“What if she doesn’t like me?”

“Is this enough food?”

“Should I take out her garbage or offer to mow her lawn?”

“Now you’re just being ridiculous. But yea, offer to mow her lawn just in case.”

I parked and put together a tray of food and walked up the steps to the first house and knocked on the door.  A nice older lady opened the door and accepted the food I brought and said thank you.  It was as easy as that.  All that worrying for nothing.


Deliverin’ meals

I went on about my route and each person I delivered food to was very grateful and told me how good of a job I was doing.  They must’ve known I was a newbie and needed that reassurance.


Putting together a tray of food

I finished up my route within about an hour and headed back to the MIFA office to “check out”.  I went on about my normal day but reflected upon the morning I had:   The recipients of the lunches I delivered are filled with decades of wisdom and probably have the greatest stories to share, and I hope I’m dedicated enough to become a “regular” volunteer so they become familiar enough with me to want to impart some of that wisdom.  I need all I can get.  And once I get it, I’m gonna keep it for myself. Get your own, jeeeez.


Are you a fan of Volunteer Odyssey? Visit us on Facebook and Twitter!


Prelude: John Cook

Unemployment can take its toll on you.  Don’t get me wrong—the first week or so of sleeping in and watching trash tv is great! But it gets old real quick.  I needed something to do.  So, I decided to do all those things people talk about doing if they had the time:  visit family, yard work, projects around the house, and hit the gym.  Keeping myself busy was definitely a step in the right direction, but I was still unsatisfied. There had to be something else I could do with all this spare time.  And then, with a little (more like a LOTtle–HA! See what I did there?) encouragement (definitely NOT nagging) from a friend, I decided to get out and volunteer my time to some organizations that could use it. And oh yea– I’m “blogging” about my experience. Feel free to read about my week-long volunteer happenings.