Volunteering Experience at Elijah’s Promise

written by Stephen Michael Co from the Philippines

The YSEALI professional fellowship program requires us to complete at least 3 hours of volunteer work. I’m not used to volunteering back home, as I consider myself an extremely busy entrepreneur who had no time to “waste” outside of business. I felt uneasy looking around for volunteer opportunities. I don’t consider myself having any particular skill, nor do I like talking to people in unfamiliar settings.

I must admit I was a little too happy when I found volunteer work as a dish cleaner at Elijah’s Promise, a soup kitchen in downtown New Brunswick with a mission to “harness the power of food to break the cycle of poverty, alleviate hunger, and change lives.” This is perfect! I did not have to speak to anyone; and, as a fully domesticated husband I am trained to enjoy washing dishes.

I came in early at 4pm on a chilly October Wednesday, totally clueless of how things work in a soup kitchen. I was fumbling about when an imposing lady, who was clearly in charge, told me to sign in, wash my hands, wear an apron, and put on gloves, all in the most curt and perfunctory manner. This would be a long surly night, I thought to myself.

My first task was to dice onions. Those big, pungent, red onions had me crying in no time, just as the other volunteers started trickling in. We came from different walks of life. Most were students, others were retirees. Some regularly volunteer, while others, like me, did so to fulfill a requirement.

After what seemed like an eternity I finished dicing the onions, and he kitchen lady lead me to my main assignment – the dish room. I was quickly taught how to work the sinks and the commercial dishwasher. My one task for the night was to wash everything brought to me and to store them properly afterwards.

Within a few minutes of figuring out my routine the kitchen opened for the night. Through the small opening of the dish room I saw the stream of hungry, homeless people come in. In a very orderly line they approached the serving area. They were of different races, of varying ages. They have different stories to their plight.


In between scrubbing the trays and loading the dishwasher, I had a revelation. My whole fellowship has revolved around food! From food innovation to serving food to the homeless, I saw how food, or the lack of it, has the power to change lives. As I saw tonight’s customers leave the door full and content, I thought about my worksite at Rutgers Food Innovation Center. The director for operations and my supervisor, Nolan Lewin, has never failed to remind potential clients and me of the center’s mission – to help businesses accelerate their growth, promote economic development, and job creation in the state of New Jersey.

When I return to my hometown in a few weeks’ time, I will fondly remember my fellowship and take its lessons to heart. Most importantly it was working the dish room in a soup kitchen that enlightened me for whom shall we innovate. Responsible innovation is for empowering the hungry, the powerless, the voiceless; it shall be used to make the world a better, kinder place for every person.

Professional Takeaways from the Fellowship

written by Afiq Mohammed from Brunei

How has participation in the Professional Fellows Program helped develop you professionally and how will you be able to apply that once you return home?

The Professional Fellows Program has been beneficial for me. With the support from American Councils & San Diego Diplomacy Council, I was placed at Startup San Diego where I was supervised under Jarrod Russell, the Executive Director of Startup San Diego. Being in a new environment is always an intimidating thing with having to struggle to keep up and adjust to the new culture, you need to strategize and figure ways to blend in the culture. At San Diego, it is no different, working from 9 – 5 in a competitive environment can be challenging where you need to learn to present yourself well, deliver and just keep moving. During my time here, I figured and took notes from my new role model and friend, Jarrod and I am excited to share the few take away that I learnt from him.

  • Stay humble & be more empathetic

I admire how humble he stays whilst being under stress. Everyone is struggling at their own pace so take a step back. What amazes me is that he strives to be on the same page with everyone, you name it, clients, students, partners and directors (and even the clueless me). The patience, sense of empathy and effort to understand makes it so much easier to work with him. He also ensures that the everyone’s voices are heard. After taking notes, he successfully shared his own views that can work well with their ideas. Sounds easy right? Well it is and you can do it too! One thing we keep forgetting is that we work with people who bears many problems and pressure from many angles. What we want to avoid is adding more of that to someone else.

  • Learn to prioritize

With so many tasks and work that needs to be done, it can be hard to keep up. One tip Jarrod shared with me was to find out 3 important task you need to do daily and ensure that you carry those out first. We all share the same 24 hours and within that 24 hours there’s so many that you can do. Target 3 things, be realistic, adopt SMART and once done, you may add and strive to do more in your checklist. It is also good practice to share this tip with your colleagues so they can focus and maintain a positive energy throughout the day. Make sure to also give credit to yourself for the effort you have done, because small achievements lead up to big accomplishments.

  • Take care of your personal health and others

Personal health comprises of many things from your own mental health, relationship with your family, colleagues and friends, your girlfriend back home and any pets you have. Imagine that popular PC game, THE SIMS, it is a good representation of life in a certain sense. You neglect one thing aspect and it will definitely take a toll on other people or things. Do things that make you happy. To ensure that you’re keeping the bar on the favorable end, make it about the people around you. Start a conversation with them, spend time with them by taking them out for a movie or a walk in a park. Share a joke with them, go food hunting to that new café. Appreciate them and they will appreciate you. A happy person is infectious! Share the positive vibe and your body & mind will thank you later. If that is fulfilled, it can help you become more productive and HAPPIER!

  • Be innovative with your life and cherish those moments

San Diego is rich with culture, history and innovation that you have a lot of room to explore. Jarrod drives sometimes but he prefers to cycle to work. He gets to experience the fresh air from the valley and great weather. The tip here is to take advantage and be creative of what you have around you. I enjoy the BIRD app that allows you to just scooter around the neighborhood. The last time I took a ride on a scooter was when I was 10! Sure brings back memories. Not far from our office is also the Santa Fe Train Station. Although we don’t have the privilege of having a train in Brunei as we travel mostly by car, it is great to just be in the moment, experience and absorb everything you feel, see, listen, taste and smell. The city is home to many amazing beaches with clear water and activities that you can try and that’s something to be grateful about.

I hope the article is beneficial for the readers in a fun way. I hope you can see things in a new light because I definitely value my time and moments when I’m in San Diego.