My name is Greg Phillips and I’m a volunteer. I was born and raised in the Pittsburgh area. My passions include the outdoors, music, reading, my friends and family, and it turns out volunteer work. In the past, I think I probably viewed volunteer work as something I did; now, however, I view it as something that makes up a big part of who I am. I have had the pleasure of volunteering with Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank for about 4 ½ years now, and it is by far one of the best things I could have decided to do.
Like many in this country, I suffered the consequences of the great recession when my organization made the unfortunate decision to lay me off during the summer of 2009. After the initial shock of being unemployed, my next instinct was to jump into survival mode; for me this meant spending all of my waking hours on the phone and on the internet trying to hunt down that next elusive job. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and I was still unemployed, burned out on my job search. The fact was, I felt downright unproductive. What exactly was I accomplishing each day? It was at this point however that I made the decision to do something different. But I wasn’t sure what that something was….
I decided to do a quick Google search of volunteer activities in the Pittsburgh area, and lo and behold I came across Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. I know it sounds like a cliché, but from the first time I volunteered I was hooked!
What made you so excited about volunteering?
First and foremost were the people. The people that run the Food Bank, the other volunteers, and most importantly the people we have the privilege of serving were all amazing. You got the sense that we’re all in this together. As someone who grew up playing organized sports, this aspect of the volunteer experience appealed to me greatly. I think more than that though it was the sense of satisfaction that I, even in some small way, helped to make someone’s day just a tiny bit better. I could actually look back on my day and see tangible evidence that I accomplished something.
How has your devotion to volunteering changed you?
Most remarkably, I made the decision to completely change my career direction. While I had gone to college and had been employed primarily in a business setting up to that point, my experience as a volunteer was so powerful that I knew that working with people, and working for people to help improve their lives was something that I not only was passionate about, but something I felt I could do very well. With that, I made the decision to go into the field of human/social services, where I still work to this day.
What programs do you help with?
I primarily help out with the monthly Produce to People distribution and also serve as an advocacy liaison. This is one of the aspects of my volunteering that I appreciate most, as it gives me a wonderful opportunity to hear the stories of the people we are serving and to be reminded of the importance of this work that we all do. I get to hear about their families, about the meal they’re planning on making with the food they are receiving, and if I’m lucky a good joke or two on the way.
Is there one particular memory from volunteering that stands out?
Frankly every chance I get to volunteer is memorable. If I had to indicate something specific however I would say that every time one of our consumers looks at me and gives me a sincere thank you for the work that everyone at the food bank does, there’s just nothing better than that.
What activities have you helped with as an advocacy liaison?
Mostly I work with the Food Bank’s “Paper Plate” campaign. It’s a pretty brilliant concept in that we’ll ask the consumers to write a letter on a paper plate to their local legislator expressing the need to keep funding for programs such as the food bank intact. My favorite thing is when I approach that person who initially indicates no desire whatsoever to write a letter. Of course we don’t push them to write a letter; we’ll just typically give a brief description of what it is we intend to do with all of those paper plates that get filled out. The most amazing thing will often happen; that person who 2 minutes ago was probably hoping I would just go away, is suddenly grabbing a plate out of my hands and passionately writing a letter, taking up both sides of the plate no less, imploring their legislator of the need for programs such as this.
Why do you think it’s important for people to speak out against hunger?
Hunger is an incredibly important issue. In my opinion it goes beyond the discomfort that accompanies an empty stomach. Each of us has needs. We have a need to be healthy and whole; having food on the table goes a long way towards ensuring that. More than that though, each of us, whether we realize it or not, has the need to “be” our very best selves. We have the need to realize our strengths, our talents, our ambitions, and our dreams. These are abstract, some would say very high level needs; but they are very important. Some might call this self-actualization. The problem is, it becomes very difficult for someone to have the opportunity or the wherewithal to explore and realize their talents, strengths, ambitions and dreams, when they are so fixated, so completely focused on how they are going to put the next meal on the table. This problem intensifies when we’re not only concerned with putting food on the table for ourselves, but putting food on the table for our loved ones. If we don’t have the ability, or resources to consistently and reliably do this then not only are we making it difficult for ourselves to realize and achieve our dreams, we’re putting those same barriers in place for our children as well. Can any of us be surprised if a child does poorly on an exam, or isn’t participating in class because they carry the burden of wondering whether there will be dinner when they get home?
What would you say to those who want to help and get involved?
You may be sitting there thinking, this sounds interesting and all but I just don’t know if I’m cut out for this sort of thing. Let me say that those same thoughts ran through my head as well. I am, by nature, a pretty shy person. I’m not an introvert, but when in a group of people I’m not overly familiar with I tend to be one of the quiet ones. Making the decision to get involved with volunteer work, and be surrounded by strangers, was a large step outside of my comfort zone. What’s interesting though is I’ve discovered that each time I take a step outside my comfort zone it becomes easier and easier, and my comfort zone becomes larger and larger.
I feel very fortunate to have discovered Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. They have given me the opportunity to discover a passion that I never knew existed. They are doing the best kind of work, and in the process they are having a ripple effect on our community. I would invite you to come out and experience it for yourself. You’ll be glad that you did.
Greg is a resident of Allegheny County and dedicated Food Bank volunteer. If you’d like to share your story or get involved with the Paper Plate Campaign, please contact Rachel Schneider at (412) 460-3663 x305 or via email at email@example.com.