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.