By Alex Cohen
(Additional contributors: Jeanne Melino, Chris Brown, Melanie Turchyn, Jake Rath)
One great memory of my childhood was when we received the announcement that Government Cheese was going to be handed out in our Washington Heights neighborhood church (yes I am dating myself). All you needed was a social security card and a few spare hours to wait on line. My mother would round us all up and head to church early to be the first to get our giant block of American cheese.
As we walked home with that long giant cardboard box filled with our cheese, I thought about all the tasty things we would do with it. My mother would cut it into small squares and then make hot chocolate and drop the squares right into the hot chocolate – its sounds gross but when you ate it with a spoon and the cheese was all “melty,” the salt and the sweet taste was just divine… we ate that cheese for weeks, always grateful for it. We felt special – never poor like others saw us.
For November’s blog we are collectively writing about our experience as we continue the Giving Tour of the United States, sans the bus.
This month we went to Baton Rouge Louisiana to help the victims of the August floods. This place, which was not known for flooding, was hit extremely hard. The floods destroyed much in its path, which included one of the largest Food Banks in Baton Rouge.
The Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank serves most of the underserved families of Baton Rouge and, with the holidays just around the corner, the impact on the food bank from the floods meant that a lot of families would have to go without holiday meals. We reached out to GBRFB to ask how we could help; they said that with a grant of $25,000 they could give at least 1,000 families a complete Thanksgiving meal. Without hesitation, we immediately said “yes – let’s do it.” Not only did we supply the food, we also flew out to Baton Rouge to help the food bank package all of the meals into boxes and hand deliver it to those waiting on line.
The volunteers from the food bank who came to help were all incredible, one woman – Mrs. Roma – baked the most amazing cinnamon buns and sour cream pound cake from scratch for us. A team from Exxon Mobile also came out to help box and deliver meals as well. One of the volunteers from the food bank had lost everything in the flood, yet he was there, helping his community. Not only did we make friends while packaging up the boxes in our assembly line but we were also able to speak to some of the people who were picking up meals. Their stories were all different but the thread remained the same; they had lost so much in the flood or had fallen on hard times for one reason or the other. One thing was clear, without this box of food they would not be able to have a Thanksgiving meal. Everyone deserves a Happy Thanksgiving. Some of the people I spoke to asked me why I was doing this and who I was, I shared my story and they thanked us for doing this for them, even though we did not know them. However, I feel that I do know them on a certain level because I was one of them, and they were as grateful for this food as I was for my Government Cheese.
My blessings went along with every box and I hoped that they would find comfort during their hard times, and gratitude for the random acts of kindness from strangers. I hope they somehow learn to pay it forward. I repeat what my mother once told me when I asked her if we were poor, she said “it depends who you ask, there will always be people who have less than you and there will always be people who have more than you, no matter who you are.”
While few people have the capacity to give financially at the level that our Foundation does, it is important to recognize that we all have the capacity to give our time. A check could have easily been written and mailed to the Baton Rouge Food Bank, but that is not what this Foundation is about. We realize that time is just as valuable – if not more valuable – than money.
We went to Louisiana to meet the people we were providing meals for, to personally wish them a Happy Thanksgiving and let them know that someone cared enough to travel across the country to offer their time and service to them. And we learned that many of the Baton Rouge flood victims we served had escaped New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina only to be left homeless again. Their cars now their homes, crammed with clothes and personal belongings, yet they were all still gracious in their thanks.
We also wanted the employees and volunteers of the Food Bank, some of whom we found out are homeless themselves, to know that we think that their work is important. After all, if they weren’t doing what they do, then who would? Who would feed the thousands whose homes were flooded?
I am grateful for the opportunity to work with and serve the people of the Baton Rouge Food Bank. Regardless of our background or where we live in the U.S., we are all Americans and we all have a responsibility to help one another when in need. While I wish I could do more, I am humbled and thankful to have been given the chance to give my time, even if for just one day.
80° F. Not quite the cool, fall temperature that first comes to mind when Thanksgiving is around the corner, but there we were, assembling boxes of Thanksgiving meals outside on a warm, 80° sunny day in Zachary, LA. And you couldn’t have felt the Thanksgiving spirit more.
What amazes me most at events like this are the people you find yourself working alongside of; in this case, many of the volunteers themselves had been affected by the floods and although they had suffered hardships, they know there are others in greater need. Together, our team worked alongside the BR Food Bank, volunteers from corporations, and even a man who was unable to pull into his driveway because of the line of cars – he came over saying, “well if I can’t get into my home, I might as well come down and help out!” He helped us put together boxes all day long.
Working with the Food Bank employees and volunteers was a meaningful opportunity and reminder of how important it is to be kind and helpful to not only those who need it, but everyone who enters our lives. Folks like James, Ms. Gloria, Blair, and Kie who spend every day helping people other than themselves, and Ms. Roma who stayed up the night before to make delicious treats for the group of volunteers; these special people put others first and dedicate their lives to help those less fortunate. And they couldn’t have been nicer to our team who, before that morning, were total strangers to them. In a world where it is so easy to get caught up in the ins and outs of our own lives, I am lucky and grateful to have spent that morning with the people in Zachary, LA, and will think of them in particular during this Thanksgiving season.
As some of my fellow givers have mentioned, one of the stand out memories from this particular Giving Tour stop was the heat. 80 degrees in the middle of November is not quite what you think of when it comes to the holiday season (and this is coming from someone who grew up in the South).
One thing that really stood out to me and gave me inspiration to power through the perspiration was the unwavering commitment to our purpose in Baton Rouge from our team, particularly our co-Founder, Alex. She didn’t have to be outside, in the heat of the Louisiana sun, packing food into boxes and loading them into cars (she could very easily just have sent a check or a team of representatives in her place) but she chose to be there in person. She chose to give her time to the people of Baton Rouge to show them that there was someone who cared. At any moment during the day, when others were stopping for water breaks or the restroom, you were sure to find Alex busy at work. I think the fact that she didn’t stop until the job was done really put things into perspective for me (and I’m sure the rest of the team) and set the spirit of why we were there.
Just the day before, I was focused more on website SEO and social media engagement than I was on Thanksgiving. However, once we were on the ground, all of those things seemed trivial. In fact, they were the furthest thing from my mind. In that moment, we were there to help. We were there to give. In the process of giving, I was given something in return – perspective. It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day of our usual routines, especially living in a city as fast-paced as New York, but giving back helps you to stay grounded.
I am fortunate to be able to work with a team that has the means to help others on the scale of the Giving Tour. However, I can’t stress enough that you don’t have to donate Thanksgiving meals to an entire city to make a difference. Everyone has the capacity to give back and every act can make a difference (and, you never know what you may unexpectedly be given in return)!
When I first heard about a continuation of our Giving Tour the first location that jumped out was Baton Rouge. The flooding they experienced this summer was unpredicted and devastating. The scary part is that as climate change progresses, floods of the century like these are becoming commonplace. Despite the needs that the area has in general, it was significant to have the chance to help after a crisis. The needs are so immediate and the community is so raw. I feel like through these times a community learns the most about itself and its capabilities to work together. It was amazing to see firsthand how during a period that would appear hopeless to some, hope prevails. When we arrived for our event Wednesday morning that was exactly what I saw, a community banded together, helping each other, no matter what. Some of the employees of the Baton Rouge Food Bank had lost their homes in the flood but clocked in at work the next morning because they knew people needed their services at this time more than ever. That is true dedication and love for your neighbors. Now I had never been to Louisiana before, but I have to say the people there were some of the kindest I have come across. A man had walked over to the park we were assembling and distributing the Thanksgiving boxes from and asked what was going on. His car was parked nearby and he couldn’t even move it because of the line of cars. He left but about 15 minutes later I saw him assembling boxes. After hearing what we were doing he decided to join the volunteer line and help out. That was just one defining example of the people that we had the pleasure of working with in Baton Rouge. At the end of the day, its people that inspire us, it’s the communities they are part of, and having the chance to have a role in their betterment is my favorite part about what I get to do for a living.