’Tis the beginning of that magical time of the year: the holiday season. The season of spending time with loved ones, giving gifts and, who are we kidding, eating pie. It is a magical time of year; however, it is important to stop and appreciate it all. Recognizing privilege is not a check point to invoke feelings of guilt or shame. Understanding advantages is a starting step to becoming an empathetic and active citizen.
The first, most vital step in active citizenship is education. Education is the key to unlocking the doors of understanding and fostering empathy over sympathy. Those experiencing homelessness in Charleston and across America are not monsters. They are our neighbors. They are our aunts and uncles. They are graduates and veterans. They are you and me. To better understand the circumstances surrounding the homeless, Jameson Marsh, the AmeriCorps VISTA in the Center for Civic Engagement, recommends watching documentaries such as “When I Came Home” and “A Place at the Table.”
Marsh is one of the team members who hosts Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Week at the College, an annual event that occurs the week before Thanksgiving. While this week is a great opportunity to raise awareness and volunteer, Marsh highlights that these issues live on year round.
Because no student can singlehandedly eradicate homelessness and because this systemic problem will take more than a week in November to cure, it is unclear what college students can actually do to help people experiencing homelessness in their community.
The Lowcountry Food Bank is one of many facilities that emphasizes education before service work. Once fully educated on the issues, Holly Shinn, the Communications & Special Events Manager at the Lowcountry Food Bank in North Charleston, and Marsh express that volunteering is the next step. Marsh says students are surrounded by volunteer opportunities.
The Lowcountry Food Bank, or LCFB, has distributed over 24 million meals to ten coastal counties in South Carolina. They regularly distribute food that would have otherwise been wasted to 631,300 children, families and seniors. Shinn reports that the LCFB relies heavily on its thousands of volunteers to achieve all that they have, stating, “We couldn’t function without them.” Shinn describes that volunteering is a never ending cycle of learning. Students interested can apply quickly on their website, LowcountryFoodBank.org, after attending a short orientation covering the many opportunities offered. With flexible hours and countless options, Shinn said that volunteering is “the most critical way to help.” In addition to volunteering, she said that becoming an advocate for the cause is an extremely successful way to increase awareness. “With everyone so connected nowadays, spreading the word is simple,” Shinn said.
Marsh also recommended volunteering at East Cooper River Meals on Wheels. East Cooper Meals on Wheels, or ECMOW, serves nutritious meals to those east of the Cooper who are unable to leave their home. The areas covered include Mount Pleasant, Wando, Cainhoy, Daniel Island, Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms. ECMOW does not discriminate by age or income. Volunteers are in high demand due to the nonprofit’s multitude of projects. Through ECMOW, you assist in meal packaging, delivering meals, preparing for special events and answering phones. The nonprofit puts an emphasis on an individual’s own creativity, so they are extremely accepting to volunteers’ special skills and project ideas. To apply to be a volunteer, head to ECMOW.org/volunteer.
Another great way to hop on the path toward active citizenship is through Fields to Families. Fields to Families is a three step process working to make nutritious food affordable and obtainable, otherwise known as eliminating food deserts. The nonprofit forms relationships with local farmers so they are able to receive what the farmers either have a surplus of or cannot use. They then mobilize the produce to end up in organizations in the Lowcountry that feed the hungry, such as soup kitchens and food pantries. The process allows those in food deserts to obtain the healthy food they would have not been able to otherwise. The program, however, is only made possible by its volunteers. According to Fields to Families, volunteers have assisted in distributing enough produce to translate to 66,000 meals. Tasks while working with Fields to Families range from
helping with the distribution process to hitting the fields to help harvest the produce. To become a volunteer, you can apply online at FieldsToFamilies.org/volunteer/.
Marsh also discussed Habitat for Humanity as a great place not only to volunteer, but to get educated and build relationships with those are you helping. The Charleston Habitat for Humanity welcomes groups and individuals regardless of skill level to get involved. Whether volunteers can offer their whole day or even just half, Jon Hull, Site Supervisor and Volunteer Coordinator, refers to volunteers as “our oil and gas in the engine.” Potential volunteers can click over to charlestonhabitat.org/volunteer/ to find available schedules of upcoming builds as well as sign up.
Though Charleston offers a multitude of opportunities to help first hand those in need, it is crucial to remember that, to be an active citizen, you must be sure to understand fully what you are doing as a volunteer. All too often, volunteers are involuntarily closed-minded to the fact that they can get just as much out of a volunteer experience as those they are helping. The education and volunteer processes walk hand in hand, but they can only take place if you are willing to challenge yourself to take action against the institutional problems in your community.