“Being men and women for others,” is an ideal of the Jesuits that perfectly captures the true mission behind service-learning. During my freshman year of college I had the opportunity to volunteer at a nonprofit Food Outreach, whose impact is not well-known in the St. Louis Community, but who for sure impacted how I view the community.
This community outreach center specifically serves those who have been diagnosed with HIV, AIDs, or cancer, or live on an annual income under $17,600. The founders of Food Outreach were inspired to create this organization because of their friends with HIV and AIDs. Their goal was to help their friends come to terms with their illness, and they believed the most important way to do that was through a proper diet. Having a nutritious diet created strong immune systems, managed complications and symptoms, and counteracted changes that the body often faces with these lifelong diseases. Food Outreach provides nutritious food, nutrition counseling, and other resources; the organization hopes to improve the quality of life for individuals with this disease. In 2006, Food Outreach opened up its doors to clients diagnosed with cancer. Each year they serve 2000 individuals who make up the vulnerable population in our community. However, anyone, not just people with HIV, AIDs, or cancer, can come for hot meals on Mondays. They even hold special events for the community, such as the Community Table Night at a local pizzeria where individuals with chronic illnesses and other members of the community get to socialize and eat a quality meal free of charge. Their goal has now broadened to improve the overall health of the community.
As a volunteer at the site, I had the opportunity to interact with authority figures and volunteers, but most importantly, customers. A majority of the time, I helped out as a cashier, and that’s when I was able to converse with the clients about their lives. If I wasn’t helping as a cashier, I restocked food or created the orders by placing the food on the carts. Sometimes, I set up for the hot lunch meal on Mondays and this experience drew my attention to the fact that not everyone has a hot meal as I do. Often times as a cashier, I engaged in a wide variety of conversations with the clients ranging from how they contracted the disease to weekend plans. These conversations taught me how similar I am to the people in this community. I remember one distinct conversation I had with a girl my age who recently was diagnosed with HIV. It was truly eye-opening to me that someone my age had HIV, and I was shocked to learn that instead of dwelling on the fact that she contracted a lifelong disease, she was open to talking about it and wanted to live her life to the fullest.
I remember being anxious before coming to volunteer at Food Outreach, as St. Louis was a new city to me (and quite frankly, as a sophomore, it still is). I wasn’t sure what to expect working in an inner-city organization. The fact that the crime rate is very high doesn’t help the stereotype associated with the downtown area of the city either. Slowly, I became used to the area and the staff. I realized that a lot of my hesitation came from stereotypes that I had heard about downtown Saint Louis, but working at Food Outreach has taught me that not every stereotype or bias that I have is true. The other volunteers and employees were very helpful and put their best effort forward to solve any problem. I have seen the amount of dedication the employees have and the effort they put into forming a relationship with each client. At first, I was focused on tangible tasks, but eventually, I became aware of the importance of forming relationships with the clients.
All of the employees and other volunteers show how Food Outreach cares for this vulnerable population and for the betterment of their community. With my time at the non-profit, I have learned how to communicate with others even if they are being difficult. For a split second when I first started volunteering, I believed that I might contract the disease by just accidentally touching the clients, but I remembered how overtly wrong I was. HIV and AIDs are not transmitted through the air or hand contact. This caused me to let go of my fear and judgment that I had about this community and interact with the individuals who frequented the outreach center.
Through my time with Food Outreach, I have identified three needs of the community: food security, equality in healthcare, and elimination of stigma attached to HIV and AIDs. Food security is a large problem in the city of St. Louis, which causes individuals with HIV, AIDs, and cancer to have unhealthy lifestyles. Unfortunately, most zip codes in downtown St. Louis are food deserts, areas with limited access to nutritious and affordable food. It is important to have the consistency of having three meals a day and diet coaching, because it helps individuals, specifically ones with these lifelong diseases, with their immune system. A way Food Outreach combats this is through providing weekly or monthly meals. Another need for this population is equality in healthcare because health disparities are common within the St. Louis area. This is a problem as clients with HIV, AIDs, or cancer don’t receive equal access to healthcare, as a majority of the clients have a lower socioeconomic status. This all can occur due to a lack of clinics or hospitals in certain areas in the city. Unfortunately, lower socioeconomic status correlates to health illiteracy which causes clients to be ignorant. Additionally, a lack of health literacy causes stigma for the community. Often times people don’t fully understand HIV and AIDs both how it’s contracted and what it means when people are diagnosed with it. In fact, my own roommate was worried about me volunteering there as she believed that I would catch HIV. This reiterates the fact of how people don’t comprehend the basics of this disease. There is so much that the public assumes and doesn’t take the time to learn. Just as I educated my roommate about the transmission of the disease and how much I enjoy my time volunteering there, I believe we can educate the general public and work to eliminate the stigma.
My time at Food Outreach has taught me a lot, and I hope to inform others of what the organization does and what can be done to change the community. Firstly, I believe that during sexual education courses, or maybe just visits to our primary physicians, the community should be informed about HIV and AIDs. Most people have an understanding of how cancer occurs and the treatment, but not many have an in-depth knowledge of the other two diseases, which in fact are more common than we know. Greater knowledge in the public will mean the disease could be caught sooner. Additionally, attention needs to be brought on food insecurity in the city of St. Louis, which would help both those with these diseases and people without the diseases as well. I hope to inform my peers and other volunteers about the significance of food security and the rest of the needs of this community. As a society, we should strive for more understanding of others, and for the betterment of our community even if it brings us discomfort individually. Through education and service-learning, specifically at Food Outreach, I was able to fill my mind (through enrichment and breaking down barriers) and my belly (through nutritious leftovers) and I hope everyone has one such experience in their lives.