How my heroine shamed me into volunteer work

Those of you who’ve read The Awful Mess: A Love Story know that my protagonist, Mary, takes up volunteering in a food pantry and finds much satisfaction in doing so, even as she fears she may have to take advantage of the services herself one day.

I’m not sure where that idea came from, exactly, when I was writing. I don’t write with an outline, and in any case I started writing that novel over ten years ago. No doubt in my mind it had something to do with Mary making connections in her new  town, something that would become necessary to her happiness and possibly even her survival later on.

I had participated in one or two food drives and a Habitat build at various churches we’d belonged to, but I didn’t have any significant experience as a volunteer outside of church and my son’s school.

We were still fairly new to our new home outside of Albany, New York, and I was freelancing instead of working full time. For the first time in my life, I had real time to volunteer. But if someone asked me where I’d gotten my information about volunteering in a food pantry, I’d really have nothing to say. I’d just guessed at how it would work.

It was an embarrassing realization that my heroine was doing more for her community than I was.

Not long after a small piece in the local advertiser caught my eye. The local food pantry, Doors of Hope, was hosting an open house, and needed regular workers.

And so, years later (I honestly can’t remember when I started), I’m still a weekly volunteer with a morning shift at this thrift shop/food pantry operation in West Sand Lake, New York.
Like most volunteers, I know that I actually get more out of it than I give – in this case, rather literally, because it’s allowed me to clothe my family very cheaply during my years of part-time adjunct work. Instead of paying retail I’ve learned to simply wait. Sooner or later almost anything we need shows up in the thrift shop during my shift, at ridiculously low prices.

I’ve also made friends, and become more embedded in our community, and learned that people of every political and religious stripe really can come together to do good work, which was kind of the point of the novel in the first place.

So … thank you, Mary. I needed that.

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