I am indebted to Sondra Costello and to the volunteers and the staff
of Vintage House Senior Center and to the assistants of the Holiday
Hospital Project aka the Holiday Project and to the senior citizens of
who inspired this conversation.
It was three weeks before Christmas.
When my offer to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners at a local
shelter was declined (it was declined because the shelter already had
enough volunteers to perform all the tasks required), I wasn't
concerned. I knew another three groups in my home town who prepare
Christmas dinners for the hungry, for the homeless, and for the infirm,
and another group who prepare and deliver Christmas dinners to those
who can't prepare their own and / or who can't leave their home. I
called the next group. Instead of spending a planned minute on the
phone calling the shelter to offer to volunteer, it looked like I'd be
spending two minutes on the phone instead, now also
calling the next group to offer to volunteer. I would volunteer with
I was wrong.
They also declined my offer. They also had enough volunteers. "Wow!"
and "No problem" I thought simultaneously, then called the third group.
The third group gave me the same response: "Thank You, but we already
have enough volunteers.". So did the fourth group. And the fifth.
Suddenly I was unexpectedly and surprisingly out of options to
volunteer preparing Christmas dinners in my home town. Although it was
frustrating, I resolved to search further afield. I would find an
opportunity to volunteer, even if it meant driving a few extra miles to
another town nearby.
I was wrong (and surprised) - again.
After searching the
for all groups who prepare Christmas dinners for the
hungry, for the homeless, for the infirm, and for those who can't
prepare their own and / or who can't leave their home, with whom I
could volunteer in all the neighboring towns as well as in all the
surrounding counties, I had developed an extensive list. Over
the next three days (that's how long it took me, using every spare
moment I had), I called them all, every single one of them, one after
the other. And every single one of them responded to my request to
volunteer (my erstwhile "offer" to volunteer had by then
morphed into a "request" to volunteer) in the same way:
"Thank You, but we already have enough volunteers.". By the end of the
third day, I was clear I had missed my chance to volunteer preparing
Christmas dinners this year - not just in my home town but also in all
the neighboring towns as well as in all the surrounding counties ie in
the entire San Francisco Bay Area. I had left it too late.
This year it seemed there'd been such an outpouring of so many offers
to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners that even St Anthony's Dining
Room and Glide Memorial Church whose Christmas dinners for
thousands of people are legendary and which require
hundreds of volunteers to prepare, were turning down
offers / requests like mine.
When the reality finally set in that I'd missed the opportunity to
volunteer preparing Christmas dinners this year even
though I first offered to volunteer three weeks before
Christmas, yes there was a moment of disappointment - I'd be lying to
you if I denied it. But in the face of what I realized next, the
disappointment vanished like a snowflake in a furnace. This is what I
How great it is that so many people volunteer to prepare
Christmas dinners for those less fortunate than themselves! How great
it is that so many people volunteer to prepare Christmas dinners for
those less fortunate than themselves, that in three days
of calling groups who prepare Christmas dinners in my home town and in
all the neighboring towns and in all the surrounding counties in the
entire San Francisco Bay Area, I couldn't find one single
volunteering slot to fill! Wow! What does this say about
peoples' generosity? What does this say about peoples' magnanimity?
Isn't this awesome? How awesome is it that my
offer to volunteer was declined so many times that it
morphed into a request to volunteer ... which was then
also declined many, many times more throughout the
entire San Francisco Bay Area because there were
already so many volunteers that there was no room for more!
You can see why my brief disappointment quickly to gave way to awe.
No more room to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners?
All spaces filled?? In the entire San
Francisco Bay Area??? Howgreatisthat?! Clearly, volunteering (and in particular,
volunteering to serve those less fortunate than ourselves) is a game
No Stopping At No
If you know me, you'll know I make mistakes from time to time. And if
you know me really well, you'll know I don't stay
for long. I left it too late this year. I got that. So I'm not going to
leave it too late next year before I offer to volunteer
again preparing Christmas dinners. "Well" I think, "why not schedule
your offer to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners next year, with
more lead time than the three weeks you allowed yourself this year?".
This seems like a good idea. Then I think "Hey! Why not make your offer
to volunteer preparing Christmas dinners next year right
Which is exactly what I do. I call back the shelter I originally
called, the shelter whose volunteer spaces were already filled three
days ago, and I ask to be put on their volunteer list for next year.
"Sure" says the staffer in charge of volunteers, the same staffer who,
three days ago, thanked me and declined my offer to volunteer this
year. "Can you carve?" she asks. "Yes I can" I reply. "I'd be happy to
carve the turkeys for you next year, as well as do anything else you
require.". "Oh no" she says, "I'm not talking about next
year. I'm talking about this year. The volunteer who
offered to carve the turkeys for us this year, can no longer come.
Would you like to come and prepare the Christmas dinners with us this
year, and especially carve the turkeys?".
And that's how, having been declined by every group in my home town and
in all the neighboring towns as well as in all the surrounding counties
in the entire San Francisco Bay Area who prepare Christmas dinners for
the hungry, for the homeless, for the infirm, and for those who can't
prepare their own and / or who can't leave their home, I arrive - as
intended - at 10:15am on Christmas morning along with about fifty other
volunteers at the shelter I originally called, eagerly looking forward
to the day ahead of me preparing Christmas dinners.
Assembly Line: From Nothing To Christmas Dinners To Nothing
With a dedicated team, it actually doesn't take much to make Christmas
dinners for a lot of people. Or is it that time flies when
and there's no effort in what you're doing? This is a
different kind of Christmas, a different order of the
Christmas spirit, if you will. This is Christmas as giving rather than
Christmas as receiving. And no, giving isn't better than
receiving. It's just a different order of things.
There are fifty pumpkin pies to be cut - into ten pieces each. Each
piece is then placed in its own box. An assembly line of volunteers
make short work of this task. Then large delivery boxes are laid out
end to end on tables, and a pie box is placed in each. Next to each pie
box in the delivery box, a bread roll, an apple, and a small tub of
cranberry sauce (did I forget to say it took another assembly line of
volunteers to fill the tubs with cranberry sauce?) is placed. Meanwhile
in the kitchen, a team of chefs have prepared the main Christmas
dinner. Another assembly line of volunteers adds turkey (which, as it
turns out, I don't carve after all), mashed potato, beans, stuffing,
gravy, and more to partitioned meal boxes, one of each of which are
then placed by another assembly line of volunteers into
each delivery box.
The mood is jovial, happy - yet on purpose. I tell a joke while
I'm sealing the delivery boxes in aluminum foil. A man goes out for
on Christmas morning. He orders eggs benedict. The waiter brings
his order in a hubcap. The man says "Why did you bring my eggs
benedict in a hubcap?". The waiter says "There's no plates like
chrome for the hollandaise" ... (say it out loud - you'll get
it). Everyone laughs (OK, a few groan), and we're one big family group
just like any other big family group - except we're on a
Half the meals are now packaged in delivery boxes. The other half are
taken to the large dining room next to the kitchen where those who can
bring themselves to the shelter are beginning to arrive. The delivery
boxes are grouped together for each volunteer driver who, armed with a
name list and a map, takes them out into the community and delivers
them. Soon there's no more Christmas dinners or delivery boxes left in
the kitchen and preparation area, at which point most of the
volunteers, thinking their job is done, go home.
The Final Quarter Inch
has taught me a lot of things. It's hard to choose any one of them to
put at the top of a list of what makes the most difference - they
all do. But if I have to choose one thing, it
would be this: work isn't complete until it's complete.
The Christmas dinners are prepared, served, and delivered. The work we
came here to do, is done. Most of the volunteers have gone home ...
and ... the work isn't complete.
I start folding tables (whose surfaces I first wash down) and stack
them at the side of the preparation area. I take discarded serving
utensils to the dishwasher (another volunteer is still there washing
up). I pick up loose trash off the floor and discard it. There's still
a lot of menial tasks like this left to do. I do them all. I keep going
until the work is complete. By
And only then do I stand back and admire what we've
accomplished. I'm very pleased (inspired, in fact) with what I see.
I remove my disposable gloves (the hygenic courtesy volunteers wear
when preparing food) and my Santa's elf hat. I take off my
apron, fold it and return it to the apron closet, and leave.
Outside, Christmas day is cold and crisp. Jack Frost nips at my nose.