My experience volunteering at GLIDE began as a search for ritual. I moved to San Francisco from Washington D.C. in February to start a new job at a small real estate investment and development firm. Although I never expected the transition to be seamless, I was caught off guard by certain adjustments I’ve had to make as part of the move. On one hand, I did my research was braced upon arrival for the lack of seasons, the absurd topography, and the fervent debate over technology and gentrification that dominates the city’s political discourse.
What I didn’t prepare for was the sense of emotional dislocation that I would experience as part of changing coasts and jobs all at once. For one, I didn’t expect to feel so distant from my family, who still live in New York City where I grew up. Missing them has been a struggle with which I continue to search for ways to cope. I was also surprised by how familiar each element of my life in DC had become (I had only moved there three years prior) and how much I would yearn for the simple routines I had previously taken for granted. My commute, professional responsibilities, and extra-curricular activities had all become part of a rhythm for me and I was shocked by how lost I felt without them.
As an effort to both establish a groove and distract myself from my sense of longing, I began to seek out new routines to practice. Many of them were fun and helped me embrace San Francisco’s culture. I started biking to work, hiking on weekends, and practicing Yoga on Friday mornings. Lately I’ve joined a small dinner club that tries out one of the Bay Area’s amazing bars and restaurants every few Wednesdays (it’s called HDDD – Hump Day Dinners & Dives). None of these, however, has come close to making the impact of my new Monday morning ritual.
Initially, Monday mornings were the epicenter of my discomfort. I began each week feeling yanked in too many directions and worrying that the day had gotten away from me before it began. I felt consumed by demands on my time and attention and, candidly, grew more self-centered in the process. Incidentally, my new office is based in the Tenderloin and the work I do has introduced me to many of the neighborhood’s incredible non-profits and community-based organizations. It didn’t take long for me to learn that you can’t even mention social services in this struggling area of San Francisco without hearing a great deal about GLIDE Memorial Church.
When I first learned about the Daily Free Meals program at GLIDE, I saw it merely as an opportunity to get a jump start on my Mondays (breakfast is served at 7) and get more engaged in the community where I spend most of my time. That said, in only a few short months, the program has grown to mean a great deal more to me. Starting each Monday by spending just a couple hours helping people who are hungry and can’t afford to feed themselves has helped me gain some much-needed perspective on my own challenges in life. It may seem obvious to those more charitable than I, but not knowing what the good restaurants in town are feels a lot more trivial after you’ve helped feed someone who didn’t have any other choices of where to go.
Interestingly, the experience has also helped me feel closer to my family in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. Religion has always been an important part of my home life and I remember volunteering at soup kitchens through my Synagogue from a young age. Even though I wasn’t raised Christian (nor am I a particularly devout Jew), GLIDE’s culture of radical inclusiveness has made me feel exceptionally welcome and its mission of alleviating suffering through community engagement is deeply consistent with the religious teachings I inherited from my parents.
More importantly than any of that, Daily Free Meals has taught me a great deal about the nature of poverty in San Francisco and any area where the poor rely on government services to survive. My last two volunteer experiences were on the last Monday in June and the first Monday in July and the difference between the two was nothing short of staggering. June 30th was frenzied, with frequent bottlenecks at the entrance, constant demand for refills and table bussing, and an overwhelming sense that whatever we did, we were going to come up short. I had a meeting in the neighborhood at 9:30 that day and barely made it in time by cutting out early. July 7th was calm, cordial, and relaxing by comparison. Patrons took time to exchange thoughts on housing, baseball, and other matters of less dire importance. The volunteers had more bandwidth to wipe down tables after spills and the diners said “Thank You” more often. Most amazingly, doors closed at 8:45 and I made it to the office by 9 AM sharp.
The cause for this discrepancy, it turns out, is that SNAP Funds (AKA Food Stamps), and most other public subsidies for the poor arrive at the beginning of the month. On July 7th, the coffers of San Francisco’s needy stood relatively full, and many of those with limited options had a handful of grocers and other food vendors in the Tenderloin from whom they could purchase discounted meals. June 30th was a different story and there were a lot more hungry mouths to feed at 7 AM. Daily Free Meals, at its core, is a buffer to pick up where government services leave off. With a fixed quantity of space and a relatively fixed volunteer base, the program tends to be slightly under-utilized at the beginning of each month and significantly over-stretched at the end. This definitely isn’t the sort of regularity I was looking for when I started to volunteer but it’s made a more significant impression on me than any of my other new routines.
Overall, I’m exceptionally grateful for what Daily Free Meals has done for me and for those who rely on the program in more meaningful ways. San Francisco has received a lot of negative press lately for engendering a culture of selfishness and disengagement, but I’ve yet to visit a place where that feels less accurate than the basement of GLIDE Memorial Church where up to 60 volunteers serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. If, like me, you’ve recently started to live and/or work in the Tenderloin and its surrounding neighborhoods, I strongly encourage you to try the program out and see how it goes.
Ross Stackhouse is a native of New York City. He attended Brown University, where he earned a Bachelor of the Arts in Environmental Studies in 2010. Prior to moving to San Francisco in 2014, he spent three years working as a real estate investment professional in Washington, D.C. He is currently a Vice President at Tidewater Capital, a San Francisco-based real estate investment and development company. His favorite things are adventures, funny people, and any music that can be described as soulful. Ross is 26 years old and resides in the Lower Haight. @rossstackhouse