One of the varied agencies that SOOP volunteers service is the International Refugee Center, the first stop for incoming refugees who have been languishing for years in refugee camps around the world. They come to Phoenix after rigorous vetting by several government agencies. They have little or no say as to which country they are eventually placed. It could be South America, Europe, Canada, or the U.S., and they come with little but hope for safety and a new beginning, as did the recent family of seven from Africa who came with one suitcase among them.
The IRC processes their papers, provides an apartment with the most basic essentials, and the refugees have three months to learn the language, get a job, and pay their own way including the airfare that brought them here. The mountain they climb is daunting, so in addition to easing the entry process with minimal housing and job searches, the IRC collects donated goods and twice weekly opens a thrift store to which the refugees may come once a month for the three months they are dependent on the IRC. The refugees are assigned a visit to the thrift through their case workers, and we at the store are given the names of the clients assigned that day. Ideally, they come at the assigned time with their green card in hand to verify accessibility, browse the store for thirty minutes, amass their goods and leave. What a pipe dream. The reality is very much different.
There's usually a mass of people rushing the door, pushing for early entry to get the best selection, with few if any names actually matching the names we are told will appear. Oh, and by the way, figuring out those Swahili names is next to impossible! Enter THE CLIPBOARD! To bring order out of chaos, the store manager created THE CLIPBOARD with the list of the day's eligible names, and the door guard who gets THE CLIPBOARD for the day holds the power! Your name is not on THE CLIPBOARD? You're not getting in!
Well, for lack of volunteers, I got door duty and THE CLIPBOARD. Visualize me standing at the door facing "the mob" who are jabbering endlessly in Arabic, Swahili, Burmese...and the less I understand the louder they talk! Volume rarely succeeds in comprehension, but here I am eye ball to eye ball with swarthy Arabic men whose faces on the evening news are not generally associated with visits to thrift stores. But all I have to do is point to THE CLIPBOARD, and I reign supreme. They understand THE CLIPBOARD. It has been dominating their lives for the twenty plus years they've been shuffled from camp to camp. The reward for them is entry; the reward for me is seeing their relieved and smiling faces when THE CLIPBOARD allows entry, and they come out having found some basic needs to add to their meager supply.
They are courageous souls who have come through impossible odds to a place of safety and possibilities. They are a joy to meet and an inspiration to listen to. We are the blessed ones getting to hear their stories and share in their enthusiasm.
Mary Jane Newcomer
What would a farm animal veterinarian and his registered nurse wife do in retirement? How about travel, spend part of the winter in Arizona, and volunteer in philanthropic capacities on a part time basis?
Serving with SOOP (originally Service Opportunities for Older Persons) under the auspices of the Mennonite Church, USA, Ron and Lila King of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, have spent 3 weeks each of the past 3 years volunteering at Hope For Hunger on 55th Avenue, Glendale, AZ. In addition to SOOP, they have volunteered on their own as well, because they believe in the purpose of Hope For Hunger. The bulk of their time is spent in the warehouse in a variety of duties wherever assistance is needed most. Lila may be at the computer screening applicants for their monthly food donations, or working with Ron and other volunteers preparing boxes of fresh produce, the distribution of breads, pastries, USDA food boxes, and a plethora of miscellaneous food items for distribution to families who through a variety of circumstances have found themselves in need of food for their families.
SOOP is a volunteer organization for people of all ages, not just retires. Everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning, and to be productive as long as your body allows it. The more productive you are the healthier your mind and body will be. Acts of sharing and kindness result in a gratifying feeling when you realize that acts of kindness have been appreciated. Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 25:40, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.”
We have developed a deep appreciation for, and get inspiration from the dedication of the regular daily volunteers who are present 4 days/week year around, and do so without pay. They are the real “heroes” of Hope For Hunger!
Ah, retired at last, time to enjoy new freedoms and the comforts earned from years in the workforce, maybe travel, play golf, sleep in, or take up a new hobby. Yet there are people who are choosing other options. They have their sights set on an alternate path. Another choice is Menno Guest House, operated by non-profit Hospitality Services Center, (HSC) in Glendale, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. Since 1995 an international Mennonite Church program, Service Opportunities for Older Persons, or SOOP, has been "providing a launching pad for persons desiring to serve those in need." SOOP services are provided locally by HSC.
On a quiet street of modest homes in Glendale, two houses, side-by-side, look like others on the street, but what happens inside these homes is anything but typical. These two houses, linked by a patio and surrounded by fruit trees, comprise the Menno Guest House where mostly retired volunteers from across the U.S. and Canada gather for a few weeks, or a few months to live, and work together.
During breakfast on a sunny February morning, sixteen members of the Menno Guest House 'family' show each other Facebook photos of snowstorms, ice and blizzards back home in Indiana, Ohio, New York, Calgary, and Virginia, sent today by family members and friends. The forecast for Phoenix is 75 degrees. Dressed in short sleeve shirts, the sixteen hop into three vehicles to head for the volunteer jobs that they selected at a meeting the night before.
Ted will drive his red SUV; Jim is driving the blue SOOP van, and Ron his silver truck. Ted takes Lois, Carl and Darlene to Abounding Service, a volunteer-based language school for refugees who are learning to speak, read, and write English, many in preparation for becoming U.S. citizens. The SOOPer's job is to work one-on-one with students as Encouragers, using the Rosetta Stone computer language program and other tools. Jim, Lila, Bill, and Patty will work at St. Mary's Food Bank, the oldest food bank in the world, and the second largest in North America. They will perform one of many jobs to ensure that today's 19 tons of food is packaged and delivered to schools, families and the homeless across Arizona through more than 30 partner organizations. Edd, Bruno, Rha, Lila, and Ron are helping at Hope for Hunger, a 55th Ave. food pantry started and supported by Glendale Fire Department volunteers working with others to serve the needs in their area.
Edna and Bill Ressler from Ohio, also volunteers, serve as hosts for Menno Guest House. They are busy cleaning, doing repairs, and setting up schedules for their impromptu mega family associated with the guest house. What propels older folks who have earned the right to take it easy, to leave the comforts of home, drive thousands of miles in dicey weather to share living space, meals, cooking, cleaning, and bathrooms with strangers? What some would consider menial, physically and mentally demanding work, these folks are ready to embrace at 7:30 a.m., five days a week, knowing that when they get home they will be tired from taxing aging muscles, joints, backs, and brains.
Here's what SOOP volunteers at Menno Guest House have to say about their motivation for following this alternate path in retirement:
Well, two days volunteering in a first-stop-on-the-ground, straight-from-the-airport immigration center has been quite the eye opener. Lest you think these are all Mexican undocumented folks, sneaking across the Rio Grande confiscated by border patrol, that they are not. Most come from parts of war-battered African/mid-eastern countries, have struggled for years in refugee camps in other border countries, and cannot return to their country of birth. They come with untold horror stories of war and pain. (Technically there are differences between those classified as immigrants or refugees, but that is a mute discussion for my purposes.) This place is basically run by what I call children-most everybody behind the desks is under thirty-five, ambitious, savvy, and amazingly diverse, an international mix of people who speak as many different languages as the immigrants they serve. They are wonderful to work with and so appreciative of help since, clearly, they are way over their heads in back-logs of work. I think they all see us as their grandparents. While they have many volunteer spots, most require extended investments of time: tutoring, driving folks to appointments, helping them settle into their communities, building relationships. For us short-term volunteers, here today, gone tomorrow, we get the joy of bringing order out of total chaos in the heaps and piles of donated goods be it clothes, household goods, or toiletries, that find their way to this place along with the long lines of immigrants. It is a jackpot for the American clothing fetish handoff. Yay, more refugees to take our seconds so we can go buy more. In their defense the donors of the MOUNTAINS of donated goods have fairly trendy clothing tastes: Gap, Old Navy, Lands End.... Which makes the sorting and arranging and organizing a little more tasteful, and for the most part the clothes are clean. We were told to throw out any clothes that had: stains, missing buttons, broken zippers, rips, and I added one more category - ugly! I know, it's a subjective concept, but America does not have to be subjected to some of this stuff, especially when you see the full gowns and head gear and layers of clothes that cover the potential recipients in the waiting room. They would find some of this stuff repulsive! The donations are sorted and stashed into some kind of accessible shelves and hangers in a tiny room roughly 25x25, far too small for the purposes it serves. Then two days a week it opens for four hours for the refugees to come in and stock their houses for free. It is what the volunteer coordinator calls Refugee Black Friday. You should see the sight! So yesterday Ben and I waded our first steps into the chaos of bags heaped in the hallways. To really get the picture, try to imagine Ben opening garbage bags stuffed with frilly bras and lacy tops trying to figure out not only "what the heck is this?" but "where the heck shall I put it?" It was really quite hilarious, but given his bent for organization, we started a new sorting system based on clothing types: women's tops yellow bags, women's' pants/skirts red bags, men's pants green bags, men's shirts blue bags... You get the picture and away we went. Five hours later we'd made only a minimal dent in the hallway, but the labeled, sorted, colored bags were amassing in organized heaps along the wall. So today we took my sister along hoping we'd get at least 1/3 more work accomplished. Good in theory but a little less effective in practice through no fault of our own. One of the case workers brought in a client and her small son cute as a button, who is starting a new job tomorrow at Popeyes and she needed shoes. I showed her the shoes. And the Black Friday Rush took over. She TORE into those shelves, amassing a heap that went WAY past shoes all while her son dragged out the toys and entertained himself unendingly under our feet. She eventually started "helping" Rita and me "sort," going through the bags we'd started for trash and pulling out clothes wondering why it was trash. To her it was a treasure trove! She spoke very little English and of course we spoke not a word of whatever African country she came from, but pantomimes go a long way. At one point she wanted what we finally figured out was laundry soap and when Ben found her a jug, she hugged it to herself in utter gratitude. Long story short and an hour later, she ended up with a huge trash bag of clothes/goods that Ben helped her hoist onto her head and in the other hand she towed an additional full garbage bag of goods. Happy client sashayed down the hall in true African style, and our hours of interrupted work were greatly rewarded. We took a lunch break before the big afternoon store opening after which Ben took me home to bed (still battling a horrible cold and complete and total loss of voice) and he and Rita went back for the BF Rush. Oh the stories they told when they came back, but those stories are theirs, and I was only sorry I missed it! But the long afternoon nap will hopefully go a long way toward restoring a voice and health. Way too much fun here to spend it sleeping off laryngitis. So all of this begs the question: why travel all across the US literally and spend hundreds of dollars in travel/housing costs to sort clothes and fill food carts when we could have stayed home in Harrisonburg and likely done the same thing for free? Does H-burg even have a food pantry? We know there's always Gift and Thrift! That question has been plaguing me throughout our stay. Is this really worth the time/money spent, or is it some little feel-good binge we're on?
Mary Jane Newcomer,