(from an online student AMH 2020)
This summer I chose to help out Dr. Soldani at the Tallahassee Veterans’ Village for their weekly potluck dinner. I love cooking and even though half of my stove is broken, making a giant casserole for a bunch of servicemen and women was definitely on my list of things to do. I’ve been volunteering over the summer at a few places of my own interests (the Spring House and the Knott House Museum) but this was a different experience because I wasn’t just giving my time, I was also giving some of the most basic necessities of life – food and human connection.
Ms Josephine saw me driving slowly around the loop at the village, looking a little lost (but determined!) and flagged me down. She led me to the community room, where I started the potluck with cauliflower and potato casserole. We set up plates, forks, and napkins, and awaited the steady arrival of other volunteers. I thought I would meet some of my classmates from my online course, but instead I met many of Dr. Soldani’s friends from here and there, all pitching in their dishes – from croissant-wrapped chicken to green bean casserole to potatoes au gratin. They chatted away, happy to be helping out a good cause. Ms Josephine explained that while some of the veterans would come in and socialize, some might wait til the hustle and bustle died down to come grab a plate. I completely understand this feeling – we even found out that one of the veterans had the flu!
As our dinner guests trickled in, you could tell just how thankful they were to have a great meal ready to grab and go. Dr. Soldani mentioned that that side of town is more or less a food desert for decent grocery stores, and with many vets lacking personal transportation, getting from there to the supermarket was no easy task. During my studies in AMH2020 one really learns about the link between the automobile, independence, and the American dream, and how integrated those three notions are in our society. Seeing those who have served our country go without those seemingly normal access points to transportation or shopping centers drives a wedge between the ideal America and reality.
After the initial wave of dinner guests, I sat with an older gentleman and talked about the theatre, Shakespeare, and a book he was reading. He said he does some acting around town and was miffed he hadn’t made it into Rock of Ages. He also really recommended I read the book he was working on, The Tragedy of Arthur, about a lost Shakespearean play being produced by a modern cast with a man named Arthur and his sister. He wished me a good night when I departed. Sometimes I have a hard time talking with strangers but I know that this dinner isn’t just about the food, it’s also about the community and the care that these veterans need to know still exists for them. I felt that sense of community with the ladies who brought meals, with those vets passing through the line thanking us and laughing with us, and even in the interaction that I may not have been comfortable in but that needed to happen. Getting out of one’s comfort zone is probably the most important takeaway one could get from this experience.Many students get caught up in the rigmarole of classes and part-time jobs and parties and maybe a little bit of sleep thrown in, but as an older, returning student, I have learned that there are even more experiences out there to be had beyond the academic world or the young adult world or anything that we are told is normal for our age. What needs to become normal is a sense of compassion for ourselves and others, to take the time to do these acts of kindness, to put some energy into recreating our family’s favorite recipe for strangers who may not be able to give anything tangible back to us, but that have already given parts of themselves in the past, before we may even have been on this earth. Comfort zones can be extended to include others. They don’t need to burst or become misshapen with new experiences.