On the third Saturday of every month, Caltech students and community gather at the Caltech Y to pack up groceries and carpool to Union Station Homeless Services’ Adult Center in Pasadena. In the center’s industrial kitchen, we prepare between 40 to 80 meals from $100 worth of groceries. Every meal we prepare includes a main dish, vegetable, starch, dessert, and drink. Typically, the kitchen is a flurry of activity for at least two hours as we chop vegetables, boil water in huge 10 to 16 quart pots, bake main dishes and desserts, and prepare plates to serve the residents. Once most of the residents have been served, we take breaks in shifts to get our own plates of food and sit with the residents as we eat. Once dinner is finished, there is still plenty to do, washing plates and cups, and scrubbing pots and trays.
Each volunteer has the opportunity to learn more about homelessness in our local community and about the resources to help people get back on their feet.
Every time I serve at Union Station, I am amazed at how much food we can prepare with only $100. Discount and low cost grocery stores as well as specials and sales help to stretch that money, but being involved in the preparation of the meals also helps makes them special and hearty. These dinners remind me to appreciate the effort and time it takes to make even foods as simple as homemade mashed potatoes. While it can get stressful, especially when things do not go according to plan, having a team of volunteers willing and able to take charge of each component and improvise makes every meal a success.
By preparing and serving these meals we are not only filling the stomachs of residents for one night, we are also providing crucial support to Union Station’s mission “to help individuals and families rebuild their lives and end homelessness.” Each volunteer has the opportunity to learn more about homelessness in our local community and about the resources to help people get back on their feet. At the end of the night hearing a resident with a huge smile telling your friend her chili is “fire” or having a resident tell you about childhood memories of warm snickerdoodle cookies is very rewarding. These heartwarming moments tell us we made a difference in people’s lives. And they have made a difference in ours.