Serving Sarasota's Poor

A nursing student made an impacting comment about the suffering poor in the Sarasota Salvation Army dining room. “It’s going to be a long time before the morning comes for these people,” she said.

The City of Sarasota battles with homelessness, hunger, and addiction. Some Sarasotans choose to ignore the poor, and others become a part of the solution. On April 16, 2013, the Sarasota City Commission approved a new ordinance, which makes it illegal for anyone, including firemen and other fundraisers, to solicit donations along most roads of the City.

According to WFLA-TV, the ACLU believes that the ordinance is unconstitutional, targeting the poor. The mayor of the City of Sarasota says this ordinance is a huge victory. I tend to lean toward the side of the “fundraisers,” particularly because of the daily cost to live at the Salvation Army.

In fact, I have seen where a car wrecked into the city’s thirty-foot tall, $300,000 Unconditional Surrender statue just several feet from where panhandlers collect funds, and nothing was ever mentioned about a “solution” to the danger tourists faced. It is clearly an issue of eliminating the poor from our sight.

            The Sarasota Salvation contributes to a solution. According to Development Director Glenda Leonard, the Sarasota Salvation Army’s feeding program served 3,950 clients and more than 246,000 meals, in 2012.

The kitchen opens at 4:00 AM and closes at 7:00 PM. Anyone may come in and volunteer between those times. There is only one employee, at least on the Saturdays I worked, among those volunteers and those completing community service hours. The number of volunteers varies, but, there are people in the various recovery programs who are more than willing to help. The gratitude of the people in the recovery program is overwhelming. It is also remarkably polarized from many of those who are coming in from the outside. Many of these people are homeless, still using alcohol and drugs (even drunk), and dual diagnosed with mental and physical illnesses coupled with addiction.  The nice thing about serving those from the outside was that there was no judgment by the organization of these people. The poor were served regardless of the crosses they might carry, and I tried to put my face on everyone I served.

            I have volunteered as a speaker at the Sarasota Salvation Army over the past five years, as a recovering alcoholic. In that time, I have faced countless crowds of fifty to seventy people. Others and I serve as an example of what can happen for a person if they choose to put down the alcohol and drugs and begin living life one day at a time, one right action after another. “Stop throwing up, and start growing up,” I implore. However, working as a volunteer in the kitchen was a completely different and humbling experience. I did not dress nicely and tell them what I do to successfully rid myself of my demon alcohol, the rapacious creditor.  Instead, I put on a plastic apron, Latex gloves, and a hairnet and bowed to the paradigm of service. It was good for me. I now realize that I enjoy letting go of control and embracing acceptance of all people.

            In Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains, he talks about the radicals who think they need to dress like the poor as well as those who feign political correctness. Kidder tells us that Jim Kim is a friend of Dr. Paul Farmer who founded Partners in Health, an organization which brings health care to the neediest on our planet, who Farmer says are the Haitians, “the shafted of the shafted,” he calls them. Kidder reveals others’ attitudes about the poor by Farmer and Kim. “It’s [political correctness is] a very well-crafted tool to distract us,” Kim says. “A very self-centered activity. Clean up your own vocabulary so you can show everybody you have the social capital of having been in circles where these things are talked about on a regular basis.” He quotes Farmer: “The poor don’t want us to dress like them. They want us to put on a suit and go get them some food.” After having been in the kitchen, serving with other people who are doing the dirty work, these words resonate with me more than they did when I read the book the first time. I do, however, believe some credit ought to be given to those who are willing to engage in discourse about the poor and even those who donate their time and money.

            In his book Imagining Argentina, Lawrence Thornton’s protagonist, Carlos, sees his wife’s escape from capture in a vision. His wife, Cecilia, had previously taken risks to report the truth about many children who disappeared at the hands of their government. She, too, is taken away and tortured. She kills a guard to escape, but, before she leaves, Thornton writes that she “studied the wall carefully, running her eyes over every inch, trying to commit it to memory.” In an effort to end the suffering of her country, Cecilia wants to be certain that the horror of hers’ and the other victims’ terrible truths are remembered. I can relate to that feeling on a much lesser level. Are we not defined by our experiences, lightened if we share them?

            In June of 2010, I sang on Perelman Stage, in Carnegie Hall. It was the 10th Anniversary of Susan G. Komen’s Sing for the Cure. The international chorus and its audience were not allowed to take any photos from which to remember the experience. We needed to savor every moment if we were going to share it with others. I focused on a piece of architecture. I can easily recall its carved swirls encased in an eggshell-white wooden block. I imagine it must have been part of a strong and beautiful tree at one time, wonder at its history. Knowing that I would write a paper about my experiences as a volunteer, I used the same memorization technique, in order to recall it in its most vivid detail.

            While I was working in the kitchen, I knew I would have to relive my experiences with those people whom I had worked and those I had served. I made mental notes, and, when I got home, I first wrote about a nine-year-old boy who came up to my partner and me. He exclaimed, in a fine southern accent, “Whoo! My back is killin’ me.” When asked why he was working in the kitchen of the Salvation Army at nine years old, he politely explained that he had gotten into trouble and had received five hours of community service from his school as his punishment.

            My mind was stirring with ideas about what he might have done to earn this opportunity for service learning, but I refrained from discussing with him or others the details of what brought us together in the place of service. We were all there with one common goal—to serve our community’s “shafted of the shafted.”

            Soon after, I learned a lesson of gratitude for my education, about which I often ungraciously complain. I met Victoria, a mother who worked for her welfare. She was unable to consider college at this time in her life, because she could not pass the FCAT exam. These were their stories. I learned nothing of the stories of the homeless and the patients of the drug and alcohol treatment program that I served, as their privacy was respected.

            I recall standing in food line, placing my face on each person who picked up a tray and would go out to the kitchen to temporarily relieve their hunger. During this process, a nursing student made an impactful comment about the suffering in the dining room. “It’s going to be a long time before the morning comes for these people,” she said.  I remember both the good and bad experiences of my life, and, today, I remember to be grateful for every little thing I have.

            Two out of the three days that I volunteered, I ran into John, an Eckerd College student who works as a case worker for the clients at the Salvation Army. I expressed my interest in working in this same capacity for the organization, and he tried to dissuade me from a career that paid so little. When I overcame his objection, he suggested I volunteer in a way similar to working with the clients as he does.

            There are many ways in which the Salvation Army has affected me. I have learned the benefit of one person helping another as well as the world’s need for action and understanding by the individual. I spent many years making money by serving the rich. I would adjust the temperature in the dining room and live by the rule that the customer is always right. It was not all Polly Anna-like in the kitchen. There were some who were burned out, some who were angry at their circumstances. I understand. I did not have to buy into that as a person. I was able to give the same service to the folks who brought back their food, because it looked like it had not been cooked enough. I understand that it only takes one person to give back what each and every one of us deserves—dignity.  

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

calvin mortz May 05, 2013 at 04:25 PM
I thank you Mr. Balderson first for your service to others, “the shafted of the shafted,”, and secondly for penning a positive story about the homeless in Sarasota who are so unwelcome as a group by many Sarasotans. So many of the responses posted about the panhandlers & the new no panhandling law have been nothing short of hateful. Like you sir, I have had the pleasure of volunteering my time in serving the clients of the Salvation Army's Center of Hope program available free of charge to anyone wishing to learn how to live their lives alcohol & drug free. I am rewarded richly each time I am fortunate enough to discuss early sobriety techniques to a room full of people with hope for a bright & sober & clean future. But for the grace of God go I is the mantra that I repeat when confronted by a homeless man or woman on the streets of Sarasota. So many American citizens are just one paycheck away from living a life on the cold, hard streets. If more Sarasotans lived by the credo of judge not less ye be judged, then there would possibly be more help available to those that have for whatever reason lost their way.
Marta May 08, 2013 at 12:20 AM
What a wonderful post Forest! You are a great example of compassion in action. Those who complain about those less fortunate would benefit from walking a mile in their shoes. It is easy to point fingers. Solutions don't come with rhetoric, they begin with empathy - truly listening and seeing those in need as our brothers and sisters. We are all part of the same human family. I do agree with John's suggestion to you - as a writer you have the talent and reach to stimulate learning and awareness on a much bigger scale with your blogs and books. Turn your teaching at Salvation Army into a new Kindle book to add to the others already listed on Amazon.com. There are many ways to make a positive difference - and you are doing that by example! Your proud professor...
Reta Saffo May 16, 2013 at 07:54 PM
There's that four letter word again-- L-O-V-E. Not to sound hokey here (am sure I will, though), but love really IS the answer. Sorry. It just is!!!!


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