At Open Table, our mission is to give a meal to anyone that is hungry and connect with the people that we serve. While we go through the motions of rolling and distributing burritos each week to uphold this mission, it is our guests who help us fulfill this mission beyond what we may witness. When I initially began volunteering at Open Table, I was under the impression that many of our guests visited us for themselves and their families. At that time, I only recognized the people we interfaced with as the people we were able to help, but as I have come to know and understand the people we serve I realize how wrong I was. I was only seeing part of the picture. There is so much more to what we do that extends beyond our reach.
In recent weeks, I have been studying for an exam for my graduate school application. One of my most recent lectures was regarding the characteristics of human behavior—specifically the concept of altruism. Altruism—as defined in my lecture— is the practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others. As I began to turn over the definition in my head, the first example of altruism that came to mind was Open Table. But in this moment, I was not thinking primarily about the volunteers in the kitchen and on the truck, but rather about our guests.
As I have become more enveloped in Open Table, and I have learned more and more about the individuals we serve, I have been astonished to learn the number of guests who visit us to gather food not only for themselves, but for those around them. In most cases we never know or ask where our food goes after it leaves the truck window, but in many cases, it is not only to the individuals we interface with. One woman in particular stands out in my mind. She is someone whose story I learned only a week ago, but has been on my mind ever since.
This woman is a familiar guest. I had seen her off and on in prior weeks, but never learned much about her story. As she was grabbing bags of snacks from the extras table, she was hesitant to take too many, but was assured that she could take as many as she needed. With hesitancy she obliged and mentioned, “The kids will love these” but when asked how many kids she had, she replied, “None.” She then opened up to reveal that she was a para for special needs students at a local Rochester School. She explained that she came to us to get snacks and burritos for her kids as they did not always have things to eat, and she didn’t have the funds to buy them treats.
Another man who visits us at the church has a similar story. He had become friends with a woman from his work who was trying to get on her feet after leaving an abusive relationship. He would stop by to pick up burritos for her and her two kids before hand-delivering them to their door because he knew she needed the help. The same can be said for some of our other regular guests on the truck who take large quantities of burritos each week and distribute them to their families and neighbors.
So, while our mission and our services would not be possible without the volunteers who keep Open Table going, there is a hidden aspect to what we do that cannot always be seen from the surface. It extends beyond our truck window and to individuals who we may never meet and who may never know who we are. But it stems from a quiet form of altruism that represents the Rochester community and how neighbors help neighbors, without recognition, for the well-being of the people in their community.