A Smiling Cat

“A safe haven, rain or shine, serving warm meals to those in need since 1991.”

— Potluck in the Park

“[In hobo language of days gone by a] smiling cat meant, “Kindhearted Woman” – someone who could be counted upon for friendly work and perhaps a warm meal. In hobo language it was a high compliment; today it still is.” — Quoted from Potluck in the Park website.

Twenty years ago, a group of people set out to serve a hot meal to anyone on Sunday when church soup kitchens tended to close. Rain or shine, Potluck in the Park has never failed to deliver. With an army of drop-in volunteers and a core group of enthusiastic, kind and hard-working founders, this group has been providing meals and smiles to Portland’s homeless community.

My daughter Hayle and I made the drive downtown to lend a hand as well as see the face of homelessness. Arriving a bit late, we got assigned to the recycling detail which was quite dirty work. We paired up with Jim and Grace, another father/daughter team to take any and all cardboard, plastic, or other recyclables from the busy throng of volunteers cooking and preparing meals.

David, Near-Founder and Super Volunteer

Our guide was David, an active man who told us he’s been with the group since the founding (actually, four months shy but who’s counting). He explained how all the leftover cake containers should be laid out, how to stack the cardboard and even to save the bread tie plastics.

As he told us gradually (paraphrasing) “There are two goals – 1. Zero impact and 2. Everything has to fit in my truck.” Noble goals indeed when it would be so much easier to just toss all the waste away.

Even man's best friend got a meal today.

As we worked, we saw the face of homelessness. The fierce independence, the mental challenges, and an occasional instance of society’s norms being broken in dramatic fashion. Yet, in spite of the huge number of people (400?), it was all very tame with a lot of hard work and  hearty eating.

David told me, “Volunteers and homeless blend together as equals.” And they did.

With so many volunteers dropping in on a sunny and warm January afternoon in Portland, our job wasn’t particularly taxing. There was a chance to talk with some of the homeless, several of whom were very interested in the collection of plastic cookie containers we were recycling. When you have little, a take home container for your meal is a luxury.

As the last people were being fed, the mop and bucket brigade came out to wash the square. Again, zero impact.

The effort was truly impressive, and everyone enjoyed the sunshine. There were many, many smiles.

Yet, as we loaded up the van with tables, tubs of supplies and recycling, I overheard a conversation.

David was asked by another volunteer about a woman named Ava. “Yeah, I saw her at Christmas. She was looking very thin.”

When I asked the other volunteer about it, he put his head down and said, “Ava won’t be joining us anymore. She passed.”

Unfortunately, that is also the face of homelessness. The stark reality that is hard to fathom. It is a reality filled with fear, loneliness, and the fragility of life.

Returning home, we talked with the rest of our family over a dinner of oversized burgers, chips a-plenty, and fresh green salad. As I downed my meal, I wondered when we could go back and how this experience would impact my daughter.

Tonight when I lay in my bed, I’ll probably think of a smiling cat and kind-hearted volunteers. I’ll probably also think about where all those people will sleep tonight.

Thanks to my daughter Hayle for volunteering a few hours of her time with me as we both looked at the face of homelessness. 

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About Eric Winger

Our perception of time is key to how we use our time. The most fundamental way to change that perception is to give our time. This opens us up to new opportunities and ideas from which we can build to really make a difference. ... Yes, we *do* have time to make a difference!
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6 Responses to A Smiling Cat

  1. Natalie says:

    What a great program! I need to see if we have something similar in our area. Just curious, was your daughter eager to volunteer or more on the reluctant side?

    • Eric Winger says:

      Hayle was a willing volunteer. When I find opportunities to volunteer with the kids, I never force them to go, and *try* not to be too coercive. I always ask first and if they say no, so be it.

      Often though, I’ll find that 1 of the 3 wants to come along which is always a pleasure.

  2. Eric Winger says:

    Oh, and Natalie – Yes, please do look around and see if there are similar services in your area… My goal with this blog is to ‘do’, and not just talk.

    Thanks for reading along!

  3. Pingback: Comfort With Strangers | Resolve To Give

  4. Peggy Reuler says:

    Eric,
    Thanks for sharing the experience that you and Hayle had at Potluck. I have been a Potluck volunteer for 18 years, and I have gotten back as much as I have given. With the significant downturn in the economy over the past few years, more and more people who never needed help before, now need it. Many families with children are hungry. Thanks so much for spreading the word about volunteerism and the difference that an individual can make.

    • Eric Winger says:

      You are most welcome, Peggy, and thanks for the kind words.

      I was impressed with the level of organization that the group showed, and the number of people who were helped was quite astounding. Just the fact that so many people showed up for a free meal does tell us that what you say is true. A lot of people need extra help.

      I hope to come down and volunteer again soon.

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