Cultivating a Lot to Fight Hunger

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2014-08-27 06.59.14Driving around the city this week I’ve utilize the new satellite radio in my car, today I didn’t have much time to enjoy it during the five minutes trip to the community garden. I arrived excited to get to work in the empty lot turned Community Table Garden. Upon exiting my car I realized I had forgotten my sunglasses; the morning sun cresting the horizon blinded me. Although squinting I couldn’t stay in my car and decided to give into my excitement and explore the plot of land while I still had the glowing light of the golden hour.

Shortly upon my arrival, Sarah, the supervisor of the project, arrived and greeted me. As we toured the site my knowledge of agriculture quickly multiplied and I became more connected to local farmers and suppliers like those at the local farmer’s market. Sarah and I cleared a vegetable plots that couldn’t survive the August heat. Through our work we connected over our shared interests in working the land and to the community garden mission. I was assigned this organization for my Volunteer Odyssey when I expressed interest in food deserts and nutrition. I was pleased to be volunteering in a grassroots effort, and learned that this lot, partially funded by Gaia’s recycling programs, was used to stock the local food bank. Gaia is a nonprofit focused on sustainability supported by green donation clothing donation boxes across the country.

Rain water from the nieghbor

Rain water from the neighbor

Removing my gloves to water the plants, I was able to breathe the wholesome aroma from the dirt on my fingers. This action filled my mind with images of my childhood weekends helping with yard work along with my family, and the smell of fresh-cut grass that would stain the knees of my jeans. I was delighted to discover the water we used for the community garden was rainwater collected from a neighbor’s roof. This neighbor donated his time to construct a system to feed natural irrigation into collection barrels, which were fashioned with antique Coca-Cola syrup nozzles for spigots. Everything about this effort and atmosphere seemed wholesome and shared by the community. Even the sign for the location was created by a local Memphis advertisement agency just a few miles away. We watered the plants and filled the hydration system, which consisted of buried pots that held water for the root system, Sarah said this hydration system was built in Austin, Texas. Before moving to Memphis, I called Austin home; a reminder of the overlapping connections in my new community; we were both here to help these plants feed the community.

2014-08-27 08.14.17As the morning ended, I exhaled a sigh of summer air. I recalled a passage I recently read which advocated, “getting off your butt and doing something.” Today, I did just that and was finally exposed, and then contributed to an effort that has interested me for a long time. Community gardens are a trending topic of late; my experience today reinforced my opinion that they are an integral part of a solution to the malnourishment our society faces. I look forward to getting my hands dirty again, and seeing what’s growing next to Huey’s restaurant at Gaia’s Community Garden Table.

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Chicken Soup and Soul Music

2014-08-26 09.03.08

When I think of “volunteering” I first think of a soup kitchen, I imagine an industrial scene where an assembly line of men and women in drab uniforms, ladle cups of soup to a procession of hungry people in a line wrapped around the block. However, what I experienced was a stark contrast.

I arrived at breakfast and the smell of coffee enveloped the area. I brought with me my own thermos of coffee I had been nursing since I left home. There was general sense of unity with soup kitchen guests; both men and women similarly drank their morning brew, in this universal early morning ritual. I was thrilled to teamed up with two Volunteer Odyssey alumni upon my arrival at the old gothic church.  Not only does Saint Mary’s Catholic Church feed the souls of its parish but also the hungry of Memphis.


I was able to speak with a fellow volunteer before today, and this helped to prepare me for the journey. My first task, which I immediately began, was assembling cold cut sandwiches; I had been forewarned that our task was to simply fight hunger, not to provide a perfectly balanced meal. The diversity of the hungry people who waited in line for a meal surprised me. There where people who pushed their possessions in shopping carts in addition to well dress man in a suit on his way to work and men in hard hats who appeared to have finished a redeye shift on a construction site.


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Still morning, we began passing out lunch and the gratitude from the line was endless. I felt slightly guiltily as I was simply the person they saw deliver their food. There were others forces that had been passed through me to the patrons; the parish of St. Mary’s that provides the kitchen, the community that donates to support this institution and the committed people that give their time to utilize these recourses for continually fighting hunger. Representing this collaborative effort I smiled and issued a good morning to everyone who passed through.

I  happily embraced my new home and its blues influences as one of the guests encouraged me to empower my welcoming greetings with more soul. The dining tables were harmonious with gospel music filling the area. I recognized the hymns from my Catholic upbringing but admitted to another volunteer that I’m unfamiliar with the gospel classics. I was delighted discovering to be titled Memphian as a nonnative I had to learn some history. Elvis history specifically and the sounds of gospel and blues played an integral role in his story. As lunch finished the designated volunteers and many of those who came to eat helped clean and prepare for the cycle to continue tomorrow.

This experience reminded me that benevolence isn’t just about the big actions, such as building schools or changing policies; it’s also about the small actions that add up to something greater. It hasn’t taken long for Memphis to start to feel like home, at Saint Mary’s I was able to see people leave the gathering with a strong sense of community, something I too am seeking in my new town.

Waiting, but not in Vain

The famous waiting room. Image was cropped to conceal the identity of Yusuf.

The famous waiting room. Image was cropped to conceal the identity of Yusuf.

I couldn’t put my finger on the exotic smell that filled the house of the newly transported Memphis family I met today. I previously lived in a melting pot of an apartment in the culturally diverse mecca of Los Angeles, and because of this experience I was surprised by the naïve nature of my intrigue. My day’s journey began at the World Relief Memphis, where I was assigned to help a refugee from Somali, a country I have never met someone from. I also am new to Memphis, only having been a resident for ten days. I was told that the man I was assisting spoke English, but it was ignorant of me to think we would have an easy flowing conversation, during our drive. I took Yusuf towards downtown Memphis to the health department, this was his first time, and he would be receiving a Tuberculosis test. As we drove I unsuccessfully attempted to make small talk while successfully managing to miss every other turn on our trip. After scrambling for parking in a part of the city new to me, we hastily made our way into a room labeled “TB,” this is where the waiting began.

The first step was to assist my new acquaintance with filling out forms; this is where I had my first real chance to start communicating directly with him. We talked about geography, he knew which state Los Angeles was in, but had to explain to me the region where he had lived. My new friend was from Somalia, but had fled at one time to Uganda. Somalia lies to one side of Kenya, and Uganda to the other; which means an entire country separated his home land of Somalia and his displaced home of Uganda. I am a self-proclaimed geography wiz, and the need for a lesson on this part of the world bruised my ego.

Despite the waiting and hurried manner of the other patients, Yusuf smiled all day, even cheerful when posing for his identification picture. When he was called back for his examination I passed the time feeding quarters to the parking meter. It didn’t take long in the muggy heat advisory of the day for my shirt to become saturated. Between rounds of his appointments our conversation intermittently continued; our small talk got easier as we chatted about the weather, I even won back some amateur geography points. As he made his last trip into the clinic room, he gleefully showed me we were done with a thumbs-up sign.

As we hopped in the car that had been roasting in the heat all day he said it felt like the hot dry African climate he was used to. I turned on the radio after a long day of the dreary health department and asked if he liked American music. He smiled saying he was a supporter. I found out his favorite artists were rappers 50 Cent and Tupac. He was also a Bob Marley fan and I was treated to a few a-capella bars from Marley’s, ‘Buffalo Soldier.’ As I changed radio stations, we discovered Bob Marley singing, in which we both nodded our heads back and forth with the windows down, as we made our way to his home. At the end of our journey he turned to me, and gave me a big three-part handshake before he exited the car.

Being new to Memphis myself, I can empathize with the man and his family, but it is hard for me to fully image what it would be like to be transplanted from across the globe. This family was fortunate to be taking under the guiding hand of the World Relief operation in Memphis, which assists hundreds of refugee families every year. I can sympathize with the challenges that the family will endure adjusting to life in a new country, but I am confident in the aid that World Relief will provide and most of all in the friend I had made today. With a contagious smile and unending gratitude, I completely expect for him to thrive in America. Only one day into my Odyssey Forward program and I’m all ready day dreaming about getting to help this organization and this family on a regular basis, if all the organizations are this great I might not have much free time in my new city.

Prologue: Brendan Larkin

Growing up charity and volunteering were always synonymous with church service and resume builders in my mind. It was not until I met a young women who had overcome many disadvantages only to decide to give back to low income communities instead of pursuing a more typical American dream that I realized not only how many advantages I had, but how easy and fulfilling giving back to a community could be. Memphis is such a unique city with so much pride that volunteering here will be an immediate way to become embedded in the community while helping foster it.

I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to do just that, not at one organization, but at seven different non-profits all in the span of one week. While there are many more great non-profit organizations with volunteer opportunities, I believe that these seven will give me a great spectrum of knowledge on volunteer opportunities in Memphis. I will get the rare chance to be able to see what issue needs the most attention and what group, cause or community I am really am passionate about. I know that this adventure will drastically alter my knowledge and understanding of the city and the community in a positive way.

I am excited to build and refine my skills in many new, exciting situations. While I know the demands of this week will be challenging, I look forward to coming out as not only a more informed individual, but more well rounded person that can bring a lot to the table at any organization. My hope is that the main achievement of this week is a renewed sprit of empathy and erosion of past ignorance for me and anyone that follow experience.

Intern Odyssey: How Blue Pompoms and Feathers Changed My Life

Never before have I purchased something as useful from a religious institution as the blue pompom-and-feathered fly swatter I purchased from Catholic Charities of West Tennessee.

Myself and my new blue pompom best friend

Myself and my new blue pompom best friend

Let’s backtrack. This was my third day in Memphis and I woke up bright and early, ready to seize the day. Being one of the few car-less Memphians, and the only non-tourist in all of the state to take the trolley as an actual means of transportation, I called up ‘Lyft’- a community initiative in which individual members looking to make an extra buck pick you up and take you where you need to go. It is also a great way to meet interesting Memphians who are involved in community and, more often than not, they know more about the place you are going to than you do. That was the case for me as my Lyft driver described in detail all the incredible services that Catholic Charities of West Tennessee offers. His vivid explanations made me even more excited for the day to unfold.

Lyft cars are marked by pink fluffy mustaches so that customers can easily identify them

Lyft cars are marked by pink fluffy mustaches so that customers can easily identify them

After saying goodbye to my new Lyft friend, I arrived at CCWTN and met up with Kat, an awesome Volunteer Odyssey participant who recently returned to the U.S. after 3 months living in Peru with Catholic nuns. Needless to say, an awesome person to volunteer with. We immediately hit it off and were ready to rumble. We met up with Al and Ronny, two longtime Fig Tree volunteers who know the ins and outs of, well, everything Fig Tree related. Together we drove to the Mid South Food Bank-a  non-profit that works to fight hunger through the collection and distribution of wholesome food, and through education and advocacy.

Kat and I meet and form an immediate friendship

Kat and I meet and form an immediate friendship

After listening intently to Al’s description about the Food Bank’s distribution methods and partner agencies, we later transitioned into a game of “Who-can-find-the-weirdest-food-here?” Kat ended up bringing home the gold with a tin of powdered goats milk. Delicious.

Kat's winning item: Powdered Goat Milk

Kat’s winning item: Powdered Goat Milk

Then, after loading the truck with an array of foods ranging from canned vegetables to starches to soy proteins, we headed back to CCWTN. Back at the pantry, we were introduced to Gloria, the food pantry’s only employee. (It was hard to fathom that such an incredible organization that did so much in the community only had one employee. Goes to show the power of volunteers!) Together we created small bags of food that would be handed out daily to individuals experiencing homelessness, as well as bags of food for families in need.

The bag packing crew!

The bag packing crew!

What made the bag assembling experience so memorable was having the chance to hear Gloria’s life story. As a cancer survivor, Gloria’s journey and struggle to stay positive in the face of adversity, and how she turned to her church and faith in order to help her through it, was truly uplifting and inspirational. It never ceases to amaze me how faith and service can serve as such a light in times of darkness. Hearing Gloria explain the importance of attitude, staying positive, and doing good for the community, and the effect that it can have on an individual in terms of not only the spiritual and emotional, but also physical health, was incredibly moving, and a message that I took to heart and will remember as I move forward in life.

Myself, Kat, and Gloria!

Myself, Kat, and Gloria!

At the end of the day, Al and Peggy Stehling, the Fig Pantry’s volunteer coordinator, gave us a tour of the building and showed us some of the other services that CCWTN provides to the community, including an awesome clothes pantry, services for veterans, immigration services, and more! She also spoke about the different ‘day of service’ opportunities that CCWTN hosts. During its last ‘day of service,’ the CCWTN had hosted a community craft project that involved ‘beautifying’ fly swatters with pompoms and ribbons, and selling them as a fundraiser for CCWTN. Of the hundreds that were created, fewer than 15 remained, so I quickly pounced on my opportunity to purchase one! Let me tell you, not being a native ‘Southerner’ made getting used to the sheer size and persistence of the bugs in Memphis one of my biggest challenges. Needless to say, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to buy something I needed so badly, while also contributing to an awesome cause. Now every time I look at my fly swatter, I am reminded of my volunteer experience with CCWTN.

More of the bag packing crew

More of the bag packing crew

We were also extremely fortunate to have been volunteering on a day full of celebration. As it turned out it was Gloria’s birthday and another Fig Tree pantry volunteer, Melinda, had also recently had a birthday, so the whole staff was ready to celebrate with cake, balloons, and joy. My favorite part of the celebration was a tradition that the Fig Tree staff members and volunteers have of writing and reciting a personalized poem about the birthday boy or girl. From listening to the poem and seeing how the staff members acted towards one another, it was clear that the CCWTN community was a family.

Celebrating birthday festivities!

Celebrating birthday festivities!

It was then that I understood what I loved so much about Fig Tree Pantry. It was the way that the people worked together. In my opinion, the way a staff operates and functions completely shapes the experience both for volunteers and clients. The organizational culture is core when fulfilling a non-profit’s mission, and as a volunteer, you can certainly feel the difference when a non-profit’s staff respect each other and function as a team, compared to when it functions as separate units. The end result of the team/family mentality? A better functioning and more efficient organization, as is evident by the incredible and wide reaching work of CCWTN. I will never forget the respect, love, devotion, and passion of all the volunteers and staff members at Fig Tree and I am excited to be reunited with them in the near future at their next volunteer opportunity!

Thank you for reading! Like what you read? Mira Biller is the intern at Volunteer Odyssey and is passionate about a variety of social justice issues. She especially loves connecting people with organizations that will be mutually beneficial and helping to create a better and more connected community. Contact us at

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