Leila Silberstein

Community service has always been very important to my family. For years, we would do mini service projects, such as painting a fence in Morningside Park, visiting the elderly at Dorot, and other tasks. About a year and a half ago, my mom joined New York Cares, an organization that gathers volunteers for projects throughout the city. One of the first places she went was Yorkville Common Pantry, now called New York Common Pantry.

The mission statement of the New York Common Pantry says that it is “dedicated to reducing hunger throughout New York City while promoting dignity and self-sufficiency.” The pantry provides dinner, grocery, haircuts, laundry, and other services to many poor people in N.Y.C. My mom has been volunteering at their pantry service for quite some time and last summer I decided to go with her.

I was not sure quite what to expect as I took the subway up to 110th street, where the pantry is located. I pictured a place reminiscent of a grocery store, with different foods all lined up in a row. I pictured huge rooms with boxes stacked ceiling high, and myself attempting to find various bags of rice, strawberries, avocados, or any number of things. What I did not picture was the modest building where the pantry is located, with its small room stuffed with volunteers hard at work putting apples and oranges and other foods into bags.

I soon joined these volunteers, counting vegetables and placing them, three at a time, into plastic bags, which were then tied up. But I only did this for maybe twenty minutes for I left to go to the downstairs floor to help the clients fill out their orders.

The downstairs room was surprisingly large, and filled with people. I, along with each of the other volunteers, was given a tablet computer. I was then assigned to help a woman fill out her order, one food group at a time. I had been forewarned that most of the clients spoke only Spanish. So, empowered by eight years of Spanish class, I spoke, “You…tiene…tres…fruit.” I stumbled, “Manzanas, oranges, bananas?”

The woman laughed, clearly amused by my pathetic attempts to speak a language I had never ventured to use outside of the classroom or my home, and responded to me in near perfect English. When I went on to help the next client, I was more prepared. This time, I simply pointed at the picture on the tablet, said, “three fruit,” and pointed at the various options. This appeared to be an effective method of communication, so I continued that way for the next couple of hours: pointing, speaking English interrupted by the occasional Spanish word, and showing numbers on my fingers. By the end, I was exhausted.

The next time I went to the pantry, it was to volunteer at their dinner service. This time, the large room was set up with tables, with a school cafeteria-like kitchen at the front. My mom and I went into this kitchen, and began to prepare salads. We could see an endless line of people before us, waiting to receive their food. As I placed salads on the counter, I began to feel very lucky that I have never had to wait on such a line, that my family is privileged enough to have a lot of food and a kitchen to cook it in. I felt almost guilty that I was behind the kitchen counter and not in front of it. At the same time, I felt happy knowing that, at least, there was a place where the people on this line could get a healthy meal, even if they might have to wait for hours for it. It was nice to feel that I was a part of this somehow, even if I was only giving out the salads.

This is why I decided to talk about New York Common Pantry for my community service paper. N.Y.C.P. does a lot to help the poor in every aspect of their lives, and I feel very proud to have been a volunteer there. N.Y.C.P. is a very small organization, and, if I don’t know someone there, my mom certainly does. But more than that, I feel that my work at N.Y.C.P. is more meaningful to me than my other community service work. Perhaps it is because I feel I am helping to end hunger, or maybe it is because when I am at N.Y.C.P. I can see people face-to-face, or possibly it is something else entirely. Whatever the reason, I feel good when I’m there helping others, and it is a feeling that I get from no other activity. New York Common Pantry is a wonderful organization, and I am very glad to have volunteered there. This is why I am going to give a portion of any gifts I receive at my Bat Mitzvah to this pantry, knowing that they will use this money to continue helping people in the future.