UNSUNG HEROES, by Dallas McGlinn
Helping the homeless doesn’t involve formal training, it just takes an idea and then following through. Lee Vinson has proven this. From Issue 1 of Gathering Magazine…
“The most important two things that you need are a big bowl and a pair of scissors,” said Lee Vinson, a Legal Secretary. That and a refrigerator full of leftover lunches. Every Friday evening at around 4:30, an email goes out to the employees where Lee works, saying “fridge cleanout in 15 minutes.” Whatever is left over in the refrigerator after that email goes out disappears. No one really noticed for a long time what Lee was doing with the food; they just thought it was her self-appointed task to clean out the refrigerator every week. But while working late one evening, I finally found out. I went into the kitchen to find her meticulously making dinner plates containing a variety of foods that even the most creative chef could not have dreamed up. She said it was for the homeless who congregate every evening outside of the New Orleans Mission.
No one in our office knew what Lee was doing, and she was fine with that. She didn’t tell anyone unless they asked. But one week someone became upset that Lee had disposed of her food before the expiration date. When she was informed about where her leftover food had gone, the word began to spread. People began to intentionally leaving food in the refrigerator, even bringing extra food from home. Now, at the end of each week, Lee has enough food for a feast. She may have loaves of bread, lunch meat, fresh fruit, leftover gourmet food, sauces, or restaurant food – an endless variety – to combine for a unique meal every week. The dinners became healthier, because people began to purchase more fresh vegetables for their own lunch, knowing that the uneaten vegetables would not be thrown out, but would instead be used for a good cause.
As I watched Lee one Friday evening, after everyone else had gone home for the weekend, she was working with leftover Chinese noodles, taco salad, some kind of rice dish, a beautifully prepared steak that had come from someone’s barbeque pit, some kind of stuffed seafood, and a litany of other miscellaneous foodstuffs. She combined all of these items, added some condiments that she collects (this week it was sweet & sour sauce), a dash of salt and pepper, and a nutritious hot entrée was created. She also found leftover lettuce, taco salad, carrots, a cucumber and some broccoli, which, when combined with one of the many bottles of leftover dressing, became a healthy salad. She had leftover bananas and some tangelos from someone’s garden, which she cut into pieces and added to the plates. She topped off each plate with slices of leftover olive bread someone had left behind, and voila, 40 delicious and interesting meals were ready to be served.
Lee learned how to be efficient and to make these great meals from trial and error. I watched her as she placed foil on top of the paper plates and stacked them into boxes, loaded them onto a cart, tied it with rope, and began the ½ mile walk from our office to the New Orleans Mission. As we walked, she related stories about her first few trips, when she didn’t bundle things correctly and they fell off of the cart and spilled all over the pavement, and once when she dripped salad dressing and left a trail all the way to the Mission. Now, she has a process that works, but she’s still open to change if she finds a better way of doing things.
When Lee finally began her approach to the Mission, her regulars were waiting. They came to greet her as an old friend. As she began serving, it was clear that the meals had been eagerly anticipated and they were being enjoyed. One man told me he is always excited about Lee’s meals because they usually have carrots in them.
After Lee finished passing out the meals, forks and napkins, she took out a jug of water, passed out cups and served everyone with a drink. Then, after all was done, she waved a cheerful goodbye. As we walked away, she told me how these Fridays are so uplifting for her. They always get her weekends off to a great start. At work she experiences the usual stresses, but by serving others, she feels them all wash away. The end of her week has turned into a positive experience.
Lee is one example of a person who found a unique and quiet way to serve. It costs her little or no money. She uses food that people donate or leave in the refrigerator. She recycles the plastic forks and spoons that our office would usually throw away. The only money she spends is for paper plates and foil, and people usually donate those things as well. The most precious thing that Lee spends is her time, and the payback for that expenditure is enormous – to the people she serves and to her.
As Lee has continued to serve, her dreams have grown. Sometimes other law firms empty their refrigerators and they join together to make more interesting meals. She would love to see all of the offices in the downtown New Orleans area doing the same thing. She wants to collect hygiene items to pass out as well. Lee has found out what a lot of lucky people learn, the more you serve, the more you want to do – because serving produces a feeling inside of us that matches no other. Every Friday, she goes home feeling loved and appreciated for a job well done.