How Service Teaches the Compassion Our Public Policy Needs

Last Saturday, I woke up at the ungodly hour of 7:45 am to volunteer with my sorority in Columbus. Groggily, I dragged myself to the bookstore and tried to stay awake. The previous night had been a particularly bad one for me, but I had made a commitment, and I wasn’t going to break it.

I started feeling better as we drove toward Columbus. Maybe there’s something about the delightful incongruity of blasting Lil Yachty while staring out of a car window at cows and barns that lightened my spirits.

We arrived at the Meals on Wheels volunteer center for orientation, still tired but ready to make a difference (and earn some service hours). Thirteen years as a Girl Scout have left me very well acquainted with the facets of community service; I was prepared for the logistical restrictions, the paperwork, and the frustrating inability to see immediate results in what can be tedious work.

Meals on Wheels, though, is different. Volunteers deliver food directly to clients’ doors, sometimes interacting with their families, caretakers, or pets. A dozen doors opened to my group that morning to reveal kind, grateful people—people who, without this service, would not have eaten that day. This is the alarming opacity of public programs: it is so difficult for those who don’t benefit directly from them to see the immense amount of good they do.

The people to whom we delivered food on Saturday were expecting us, having been clients of this service for up to a few years. They were used to signing the clipboard, sometimes twice, before taking their cartons of milk and plastic trays of food. The services we provided to them weren’t a courtesy, they were a fulfillment of a necessity; the clients’ welcoming smiles and gratitude reflected that.

Meals on Wheels’s clients depend on this service. They are real people who live in houses filled with family photos, pet toys, and souvenirs from their travels. They watch the news, take care of their gardens, and spend time with their loved ones. These are people as complex and nuanced as anyone who doesn’t receive vital government aid.

I honestly cannot comprehend the fact that there are many who believe that the people who benefit from these programs will be unaffected by their absence. That is exactly what happens, though, when legislators propose cuts to these programs.

President Trump’s proposed budget, for example, would negatively affect the funding that helps Meals on Wheels provide food for those in need. Although government funding doesn’t make up all of Meals on Wheels’s operating costs, any loss of resources in a non-profit can be devastating to its structure and functions.

Kenyon, though a place of progressive politics and noble ideals, often fails to relate to those who need the benefits of a classically liberal society. The apathy of privilege often obscures the humanity of those who receive government aid. It is often frustrating to observe a campus that, collectively, has very little experience with underprivileged people and areas (this, of course, also speaks to the necessity of community volunteering).

For many, the mentality of separation from those in need translates into votes. Something I had to come to terms with last semester was the fact that many Americans’ top priorities don’t align with mine. I come from a background that stresses care for others, especially in a community (even one as broad as a country). For these reasons, my conscience leans toward voting for a candidate that will help those in most dire need of a government who will assist them in basic sustenance, health, and human rights. For others, though, the threat of foreign terrorism is more important, and those votes decided the election.

To step away from politics for a moment (which is impossible, given how intrinsically policy and survival are linked for our country’s most vulnerable): we at Kenyon lead lives that are incredibly privileged. We have access to a world-class education, comfortable housing, and pretty much unlimited food (though its quality is debatable). When I delivered food to Meals on Wheels clients on Saturday, I observed conditions that presented a stark contrast to Kenyon.

The clients whom Meals on Wheels serve are often from underprivileged backgrounds. This includes an education gap just like the one we see among our generation. Those who are educated are more likely to be wealthy and healthy, and those who haven’t had access to such an education are not so privileged. This is something I often forget as I complain about my early classes on Mondays.

Many Meals on Wheels clients live in houses in various states of disrepair. People who have limited mobility and little to no household visitors find it hard to keep a house or an apartment perfectly clean, which can contribute to poor physical and mental health. We at Kenyon have wonderful custodians to cater to these needs.

The purpose, of course, of Meals on Wheels, is to provide food. At Peirce, we walk in a few times a day and help ourselves to whatever we want. These clients are literally unable—physically, financially, or both—to have this kind of access to food. If volunteers didn’t regularly supply food to the clients who lack the help of a family member or caretaker, the one in six seniors who struggles with hunger literally would not eat.

The newly proposed national budget is centered around the bolstering of funding for national defense. I think we need to reevaluate, though, how we define that term.

What do we do to defend the precious liberty we so value when it comes to the freedom of expression through the arts? What do we do to defend the freedom of religion that so often fails to extend to our most vulnerable? And what do we do to defend the very people we purport to welcome? The elderly, the underprivileged, those systematically discriminated against and victimized? These are the questions that confronted me on Saturday. I truly hope they have the same effect on others.


Image credits: Feature, 1, 2