The path towards addressing poverty is a pertinent topic today and one that is very relevant in Atlanta.

This fall break, I went on an alternative break trip with Volunteer Emory — Emory’s primary community service organization — doing community service work with six other students. From Oct. 8 to 12, we went to six different nonprofit organizations in the Atlanta area and learned about addressing food insecurity and medical supply shortages.

It was surprising to see the vast need for food in an area close to Emory. I learned how organizations such as the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Free99Fridge, Open Hand Atlanta and the Atlanta Community Food Bank are addressing food insecurity.

At the Catholic Shrine, we helped organize meals for hundreds of clients. As a chef, I grilled hot dogs, sausages and vegetables to be distributed to the families. While I’ve grilled before, it was meaningful to use my skills to help those in need. 

After cooking, I was able to speak with the people who came to get their meals for the day. I enjoyed having genuine conversations with them about how they were doing, and it made me feel proud to see a smile on their faces. The heartfelt greetings I received after serving the food were rewarding for me as well. It was really impactful to see that from my cooking, many hungry clients were able to have their food for the day, and the volunteer manager was very appreciative of our service. 

Saturday, we volunteered at Free99Fridge, an organization that helps fill refrigerators in a handful of public places in Atlanta. They receive donations daily, and anyone in the community experiencing food insecurity can come pick up their food from these locations. When they arrive, they select food on a first come, first serve basis. 

Volunteers came together at the Free99Fridge location next to the Best End Brewing Company along the Westside Trail of the Atlanta Beltline. (Eric Jones/Staff Writer)

As volunteers, our roles were to organize the refrigerator, pick up trash and sort utensils into individual bags. Keeping the locations clean is essential out of respect for the local businesses in the shopping centers who pay for the utilities of the refrigerators.

After we finished sorting utensils, the volunteer manager expressed her thanks for the impact we made and mentioned how it would have taken her hours had we not helped. 

There was also a time at Free99Fridge where I had the opportunity to interact with clients who were getting their food products. When I handed food to one man, he expressed how happy he was. Not only did he seem grateful to have his food for the next few days, but he also seemed pleased to have a genuine conversation with me.

Sunday, we went to Open Hand Atlanta. At this organization, cooked meals are made, packaged and distributed around the metro Atlanta area to clients. Not only was I organizing meals with pasta and chicken, I also spent two hours in the kitchen, where I helped the chefs cook 700 pounds of beef osso bucco to be distributed to 11,000 families. Aside from learning useful cooking skills, I also learned about the delivery timeline of the food from one of the chefs, who also mentioned that the osso bucco was being prepared for the following day’s meal.

Later that afternoon, at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, the largest food bank facility in the United States, we began by sorting 150, 35-pound boxes for in-need senior citizens in the Atlanta area. We then sorted thousands of pounds of food to be given out to different food pantries in the area, the main one being the Community Food Center in Stone Mountain. In total, we organized about 7,000 pounds of food, equivalent to around 6,000 meals. 

Volunteers gathered for a picture after their three hours of work at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. (Eric Jones/Staff Writer)

Even though I was not able to interact with clients like at Catholic Shrine and Free99Fridge, it was still incredible to be able to cook and sort such monumental amounts of food for people in need. Again, it is essential that volunteers continue to participate, because the dire need for food is still there even if volunteers are not. Emory students are encouraged to sign up for volunteer slots on the websites of Open Hand Atlanta and the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

During our down time between community food centers, we visited the Lost-n-Found Youth Thrift Store, where all proceeds go to homeless shelters for young adults age 18-25 in the LGBTQ+ community around Atlanta. Those in need of clothing can get vouchers to spend in the store at no charge. We organized different sections of the store for three hours to ensure that the customers could more easily locate items to purchase. At the end of our time there, I spent a few minutes speaking with the owner, and he also mentioned how grateful he and his colleagues were for our help around the store.

After this experience, it humbled me to think about people my age needing clothes. While my greatest worry may be homework or exams, others are more stressed about having clothing to wear, putting my fortunate circumstances in perspective.

On Tuesday, we went to MedShare, a national nonprofit organization that receives excess medical supplies from hospitals and distributes them to communities in need across the country and internationally. We ultimately sorted enough medical supplies to be distributed to roughly one thousand patients.

Esther Seo (22C), one of the leaders of the trip, shared her thoughts on the weekend.

“It was encouraging to see and hear Emory students wanting to make a difference,” Seo said. “I hope that students at Emory continue reaching out to community organizations that really rely on volunteers’ support.”

I am glad I went on the trip. I know the path to solving these societal problems such as food and health care inequality is far from over. In this way, it is imperative that we continue to volunteer by performing similar small acts of kindness that can go a long way in making a difference.