Capital Area Food Bank: a volunteer’s view

Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A with Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE, an association veteran and CEO of Spark Consulting, as well as a regular volunteer at the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB), the beneficiary of our 11th Annual .org Community Food Drive, which runs through May 21, 2013. Many thanks to Elizabeth for sharing her story on our blog! If you have a food bank story to share, please let us know in the comments, or contact us.

When and why did you start volunteering at the Capital Area Food Bank?

I’ve supported CAFB for probably 15 years, but until recently, it was in one of three ways: donating money, participating in office food drives, or going to volunteer with HandsOn Greater DC Cares at one of their three big annual community service days usually with a team from my office.

You’ll notice two of those three involve colleagues and co-workers. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is something that’s always been important to me. When I launched Spark Consulting last summer, I figured that was the end of my CSR projects, since it’s just me.

Then, around the holidays, I had an epiphany: at my last association job, one of the things I advocated for was to allow employees to engage in volunteer work during business hours on a regular basis (the team working on this had proposed up to one day per quarter). We weren’t successful, but the thing is, I’m my own boss now. If I want to do regular volunteer work during business hours, I can! 

CAFB was immediately on the top of my list for investing my CSR volunteer time. I believe strongly in the work that they do; they need volunteers year round; and, while they usually have no trouble filling their volunteer slots on weekends, they often need volunteers during the week. Perfect match!

You’re a regular volunteer. How often do you go and what do you do? Do you volunteer alone or with a spouse/friend/group?

I volunteer at CAFB one morning a month, usually the first Friday. I do whatever they need me to do, which is usually something to do with sorting and/or packing food. If your office has ever run a food drive, you’re familiar with the tall CAFB cardboard collection boxes. After the boxes are dropped off at the warehouse, volunteers like me sort those donations by type/category, so that the various agencies CAFB serves can more easily get the items they need to, in turn, serve their constituents who are facing food insecurity. We also pack sorted donations into boxes for distribution. One of my favorite tasks is when we get to pack the Weekend Bags for kids. 

I go alone, but I’m always in a team with other volunteers, and have met some really terrific, generous, community minded people while I work.

What have you learned that might have surprised you or had a real impact on you?

I’ve learned that people in the DMV are incredibly generous with their time and resources. Even though I go during the week, there are always large groups of volunteers of all ages, genders, races/ethnicities, backgrounds, careers, locations, etc., at the CAFB warehouse. Although there are plenty of parent/teenager combos, and church groups, and school groups, there are also plenty of people from all walks of life there by themselves investing a morning in giving back to their community.

The other thing that’s always shocking is to realize exactly how many people in our region deal with food insecurity. The Washington Post recently ran articles on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, colloquially known as “food stamps”) in Florida and Rhode Island, which makes it seem like it’s somebody else’s problem in some other location. The DC area is one of the country’s most affluent, and yet even here, hundreds of thousands of our neighbors don’t know where their next meal is coming from. CAFB and the agencies they support aim to fix that.

Do you recommend the food bank as a volunteer opportunity for others? How would they get started?

Absolutely! As a matter of fact, CAFB is a great place to start being a regular volunteer, for all the reasons I listed above, plus two more: Mr. Washington and David, the two men who manage all the warehouse volunteers, make it incredibly easy to understand what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to do it; and two, CAFB makes it incredibly easy to volunteer, with an online calendar system where you can see what kind of help they need where and when, and sign up immediately.

My next scheduled volunteer date is Friday morning, June 7. If, like me, you can’t make the DelCor volunteer night Friday, May 30, maybe I’ll see you there?