Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Volunteer Spotlight : Jayant finds his footing.

Since this is a site that encourages volunteer work, I thought it would be interesting to follow some of their work. To kick start this feature allow me to introduce Jayant K., a smart, funny, charming scientist and most importantly a very good friend of ours.

I started volunteering with NY Cares because of a girl I was interested in, who ladled up the gravy on Saturday mornings at the food kitchen in the basement of St. John the Divine. I thought that volunteering would be a way to do some good while chatting her up. Win-win. Well a couple of outings and a few servings later her interest in me cooled. But I still continued volunteering. Loose-win works just as well. After the food kitchen I tried my hand at different projects sponsored by NY Cares, like painting taxi-cab decals with kids (remember the Garden in Transit thing? So many Dow Jones points ago!), to taking school kids to the Bronx Botanical garden. During the field trip to the garden all the volunteers were not-so-subtly competing to be the coolest adult. I won that one hands down, by locating the Venus fly-trap. The kids loved me after that, though I must say that we were all disappointed by how small the Venus fly-trap was, just about big enough to trap a fly actually.

I volunteered for other random projects as well but there is a mad scramble online to register for the most exciting ones and after a while of trying to be the first one to scoop the most fun project I decided instead to volunteer for an undertaking where my skills were actually in demand. And that is how I started driving the food-truck. Three food-trucks leave every evening from St. Bartholomew's church with 200 meals and 4 volunteers each; white vans with blue bold lettering 'Coalition for the Homeless.' I drive one of these hulking monstrosities on alternate Saturdays through our city's crowded streets. Having grown up in Mumbai, driving in New York came very easily to me. And I am quite expressive with the horn, an ancient Indian instrument that I have perfected in New York. From the short toot -lets go Gramps-, to the longer more incredulous -Are you kidding me? I am the one in a truck- I use them all.

Over the last year I have gotten to know quite a few of the homeless people in our city. The first time I volunteered with the Coalition, I met Fast Frank. Polite, chatty, and always waiting near the Sony building for the food truck to stop by at its appointed time in the evening. We hand out sandwiches, milk, fruit, and juice. One of each, to each person in line. Handing out seconds requires making a judgment call. The number of homeless people who show up vary widely depending on the time of the month, the weather, and lately the economic condition. But Fast Frank never asks for seconds. He picks up a meal at the Sony building and then we see him again at the stop at the Ferry Terminal waiting patiently in line. How he manages to navigate our city's weekend subway lethargy to beat us to the Terminal every single time I will never be able to tell!

My friends often ask me why I volunteer. First of all there are the usual do-good reasons. And then there is the fact that I have never understood a few things about American life and in increasing order of perplexity they are - Marshmallows, Black Friday, and the Sanctity of Saturday Night. I just find driving the van an interesting outing for a Saturday. And as unfair as is may sound it is an opportunity to see the underbelly of America, the people who are falling through the ever widening cracks of our society.

Not that it is all oh 'why so serious?', there are the occasional moments of tragicomic hilarity. Like the time when I was asked what we were serving and I said we had 'sandwiches, milk, fruits, and juice.' As soon as I said that there was a collective gasp and a minor stampede to get to the head of the line. Apparently they thought that I had said 'shoes' and not 'juice.' Oops.

On these drives I have also met many interesting and unique people, both inside and outside the van. For example, last Christmas eve, while driving the food truck I ran into a picture-perfect family of four - mom, dad, son, and daughter. The Dad was dressed up as Santa and they had a car full of presents - gift-wrapped sweat-shirts, woolen socks and such. Apparently the daughter had made a moving speech at their church asking for donations to help the homeless and she had raised a ground-shaking contribution. The family had spent the weekend shopping and gift-wrapping. They followed us around in their car the whole evening and after we had served our meal they would hand out their gift wrapped presents. A Christmas miracle if there ever was one!

Coalition for the Homeless
NY cares

No comments: