Volunteering is Personal

By Sam Sittenfield, Pittsburgh Fellow, 2014-15

I had done some volunteering in the past, but it never felt personal, and I was never sure if the work that I did actually had a beneficial effect for the organizations or the population that they serve. I was drawn to the fact that Repair the World looks to be a part of the community, understand the relevant issues, and support the organization that address those issues by bringing in volunteers.

This year, my two service partners were East End Cooperative Ministry (EECM) and Food Revolution Pittsburgh Cooking Club (FPRCC). Each partner engages food justice at different places. At EECM, I volunteered at their food pantry and for their home-delivered meals program. The most rewarding part was to sit with the clients and, after taking their order, staying with them to chat. A lot of times, volunteer work takes on a power dynamic–those serving and those being served–and those interactions served to humble me and remind me of our common humanity.

At FPRCC, I served as a mentor for high school students, learning about cooking alongside them. Every week, a new chef would come in and teach us a few recipes and any skills to go along with them. I smile, thinking about how supportive the environment was, to allow high schoolers to try new foods without being stigmatized. I also loved their non-judgemental curiosity, in asking me about my own dietary restrictions!

I was most surprised by how open and willing people are to share their stories, and how accepted that made me feel. As a newcomer to Pittsburgh, I expected people to be more wary of me and my presence in their city (especially because I am from Philadelphia). Everyone has so much experience and wisdom to pass on, I feel lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to accept it.

One of my most rewarding experiences was when I was a guest-speaker at a mentoring program called Food 4 Thought, run out of East Liberty Presbyterian Church. I spoke to the elementary school students and their mentors about my experience keeping kosher, both from the technical side (some of the laws) and what role it plays in my life. We got to play a game of ‘is it kosher?’ wherein I projected a picture of an animal, and the kids had to guess if it was kosher or not!

I hope that next year’s fellows are able to capitalize on the personal and organizational connections that we made throughout the year, without being restrained by them.