A few weeks ago, while traveling upstate during the Easter weekend, I found myself unexpectedly snowbound; causing me to spend an additional night on the road at a hotel with more free time on my hands than I’m accustomed to having. As tempting as it was to reach for the often mindless, low-hanging fruit offered by cable television, I instead chose to dive a bit deeper into some of the progressive publications that I’d been neglecting of late.
One item in particular literally caught my eye; a photo essay appearing in The Nation magazine by New York-based journalist and filmmaker Tracie Williams. For those not familiar with Ms. Williams, much attention was brought to her work this past year while she covered the months-long standoff against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, in which thousands of self-proclaimed Water Protectors resisted the destruction of their sacred lands at the hands of corporate energy interests. So intense was the action she’d been documenting that, at one point, all of her equipment was confiscated during a sweep of the encampment by law enforcement authorities.
As a cutting-edge artist donning multiple hats, Williams adeptly captures the essence of humanity by juxtaposing raw, unaltered images of her subjects embedded within a descriptive, heartfelt narrative. Though I’ve yet to view any of her cinematic productions, one feels equally invested in her photographed subjects, as they seemingly jump off the page.
In her piece in The Nation, titled “Who Actually Benefits From Meals on Wheels?,” she presents the decimating 2018 budget cuts originally proposed by the federal government for this particular program, alongside the real-world stories of selfless volunteers and the thankful recipients who would be greatly affected if such slashes were to occur.
The manner in which she does so is simply moving: A mother and daughter team that travels from Co-op City, 90 minutes each way, to deliver a dozen or so meals to seniors on the Upper East Side, eventually returning to the Bronx to check in with an isolated elderly neighbor before heading home; a mother of three who’s been delivering 30 meals a day, six days a week on foot, shares the emotional toll that the job entails when one of her clients has passed away. Their stories are real, as are their struggles, yet they are unequivocally inspirational.
It takes a special person to dedicate all or part of their daily existence to assisting others. Hands down, they are indeed the most evolved of our species. To give unto others at the expense of one’s own time and energy is a gift not only realized by the beneficiary, but additionally, presents the “giver” of such altruistic endeavors with unlimited potential for self-discovery. The revered activist Mahatma Gandhi captured this sentiment rather succinctly when he proposed: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
As I began to absorb Ms. Williams’ latest piece, it triggered memories of those earlier experiences I had as a young adult, working alongside similarly-dedicated, selfless individuals. As an alumnus of Springfield College, a highly-regarded “humanics-based” learning institution, my indoctrination into volunteerism would occur rather quickly — during the first semester of freshman year.
With no prior experience in scouting, I was approached by one of my professors in the Languages Department, who informed me of a small unit of Cub Scout counselors that had established a new “den” among long-term patients recovering from severe skin graft surgery at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Several of the younger burn victims hailed from Central and South America, and therefore a need for bilingual assistants would be of great service to their troop. Over the course of several months, not only bearing witness to, but becoming an accepted, integral part of a weekly gathering, bringing temporary relief and comfort to a group of suffering young children, would ultimately leave an indelible imprint upon my psyche for countless years thereafter.
These days, much of my volunteerism gets channeled into assisting a hearty group of like-minded souls who “work the land” at the Montauk Community Organic Garden at St. Therese of Lisieux in Montauk.
Nearing its tenth year in existence, all vegetables and flowers from the garden (and a couple of nearby farms), are sold to the public on premises each Saturday morning from May through October. All of the proceeds from sales are donated to the local food pantry, and, blessedly so, to Meals on Wheels.