Volunteer Bound: Blanchet House of Portland

How We Found Blanchet House

Whether you’re new to volunteering or new to a city, it can be difficult to find the right volunteer opportunity. Luckily, I had two big advantages when identifying options in Portland. First, Rebekah has spent a lot time in Portland and was incredibly helpful in describing what she knew of the different organizations in the area. Second, we reached out to Melia Tichenor and Becky Blumer of HandsOn of Greater Portland to help us find the perfect place for our project. Their goal is to provide a starting point and a launching pad for people to start or continue on their volunteer journey. Melia and I agree on a key fundamental point – it’s important to find what you like to do and focus on that. Their volunteer calendar is a great way to get a high-level glimpse of all the different volunteer options.  For example, Melia said that she found a volunteer opportunity that she loves because it helps her de-stress. Weeding. I thought she was kidding. I hate weeding! But for her it’s a great experience. Rebekah and I wanted an experience that would give us an opportunity to learn more about hunger issues in Portland and where we would have the chance to interact with those in need of the services. With the help of the HandsOn team, we identified the Blanchet House as our perfect volunteer opportunity.

Blanchet House of Portland

Blanchet House of Portland

The Experience

It had been grey and dreary all day in Portland. The area has a type of damp cold that seems to seep in through your coat, but walking into the Blanchet House was a stark contrast from the outside. Their new space is inviting. It’s bright and open, with all new floors, fixtures and seating. Everything about it seemed clean and welcoming. When I stepped through the door, I noticed that, the guests arriving for dinner were able to congregate inside rather than waiting outside in a line as they had done previously. The low wooden benches were packed with people waiting for their dinner that evening. Even with the packing waiting area, it seemed very clam and everyone patiently waited for dinner to begin.

It can be a little intimidating to show up for a new experience especially when you’re in a new city, but the regular team spotted us right away and ushered us into the volunteer locker room where we hung up our coats and picked out our aprons for the evening. Even little details like the wording on the aprons had been carefully planned out.

Rebekah and Sarah at Blanchet House

Rebekah and Sarah at Blanchet House

We met with Robert Kelsheimer and he walked us through their very organized process for the evening. Everyone had a specific role – serving line, coffee filler, table cleaner, etc. I marveled at how detailed and systematic their process was and I greatly appreciated that Robert shared extra tips and guidelines about what to do. He explained that our only job is to greet the guests and deliver food, explaining that we (the servers) couldn’t clear plates because of the Oregon Health Codes. Rebekah and I both appreciated how clean and thorough the process was. Rebekah describes it best “The cleanliness is a sign to everyone (volunteers and visitors alike) that the guests are worth the extra effort.” Rebekah and I were both servers for the evening, so we donned our pink serving gloves, grabbed the plate from the sparkling counter and waited for each guest to take an assigned seat.

Serving dinner at Blanchet House

Serving dinner at Blanchet House

As each guest moved from the line to the table, we would hustle along behind each person and set the plate down at the table as quickly as possible. I liked this sense of urgency because it conveyed to the dinner guests that we respected their time and wanted to get their food out as quickly as possible. Robert stood along the edge of the dining room near the coffee maker and silently, meticulously tracked everyone who sat down. It can get a little chaotic once the first wave finishes eating, but Robert never let us. He’d deftly point in the direction of anyone we might have missed, making sure that no one waited more than 60 seconds to get their food. Mickey is one of the regular volunteers and he was in charge of sending the plates out of the kitchen in the right order – making sure that we got plates were distributed with a first in first out approach so that no one got a cold plate. He noticed that I would always flip my plates around so that the heavy side (the rice dish) was towards me and after a few trips through the line, he would spin the plates around for me.

Bek serving dinner at the Blanchet House

Bek serving dinner at the Blanchet House

In addition to cleanliness, Rebekah also complimented the team on their organizations and their process. “The guests go in, they sit down, they wait and they they’re assigned a seat. It’s organized for the volunteers too – everyone has tasks, which makes people feel like they’re contributing. No one wants to volunteer where you’re not needed, but here you have a specific task and it makes you feel like you’re making a contribution.” She’s exactly right – I felt ownership over my role as a server and I made it my mission to get a hot meal in front of everyone as soon as possible. Everyone had a specific and important task, which is one of the key elements of a great volunteer experience.

I always make an effort to make eye contact with the people who come for dinner and make them feel like I’m really seeing them. There was a diverse group who came to eat that night and I would bet that some of them are very lonely. If someone looks me in the eye, I make an effort to offer a genuine smile and to say something kind in the few seconds that we’re together. It’s not much, but sometimes a smile can go a long way. I like to take moment to think about the people eating here and think about what their lives are like.

There was a man who came in with an extra large hiking backpack filled to the brim and looked really heavy. Most of the others would set their bags on the ground or a nearby bench, but this gentleman kept his pack on for the entire dinner. I wondered about him and why someone would choose to bear such a heavy load. Maybe he is so hungry that he doesn’t notice the weight compared to his grumbling stomach. Maybe that bag contains every last possession and he never lets it leave his side. I also saw a young couple and their small toddler come for dinner. It still always shocks me to see children and events like this. It shouldn’t surprise me because the problem is enormous: 16.7 million children are food insecure, wondering where their next meal will come from. But seeing it as a statistic is not quite the same as seeing a small child waiting for food.

While we were there I met the mother-daughter volunteer team Kristy and Kaelyn Childers. Initially they came because Kaelyn needed service hours for school, but it’s clear that 17-year-old Kaelyn would come to help regardless of the hours. She explained that most of the guests are really thankful and she made an astute observation, “even though they need help, they’re happy.” Her mom, Kristy, added that she really appreciated the organization and the structure. “The guests know the system – you can come back for seconds, but you need to wait your turn in line. Everyone is treated fairly.” I asked Kaelyn why she likes to volunteer and she explained that she’s grateful for everything that she has and feels fortunate that they have the opportunity to sit down as a family and eat together, so she wants to give back.  I noticed that her mom had started to tear up and Kristy added about her daughter “you raise your kids and you wonder if they get it…” she trailed off, but I knew when she meant. She was really proud that Kaelyn gets it. This wasn’t lost on Kaelyn and she teared up a bit too. They both said that they plan to keep volunteering even after Kaelyn completes her service hours.

Kaelyn and Kristy Childers at the Blanchet House

Kaelyn and Kristy Childers at the Blanchet House

Towards the end of the evening, I talked with Robert about his role at the Blanchet House and learned that he used to eat there himself. Five years ago he started coming to dinner in order to stretch his monthly budget and noticed that the staff and volunteers seemed to be enjoying the experience, so he signed up to become a volunteer. Robert is currently finishing his bachelors degree and it’s clear that he feels committed to the Blanchet House. I asked what he hopes that the volunteers will say when they leave and he answered right away: “I hope that they will say it was even more rewarding than what they expected.” Without being prompted, he went on to say, “I know that some people think that forced volunteering [like service hours for teens] is not really volunteering, but you never know what effect it will have on people. We’ve had students that volunteered for service hours in high school and then go off to college. Some of those students come back and volunteer when they’re home on break.” You just never know what a great volunteer experience will do. It can change the volunteer, it can give hope to someone who has none. It can change people and cities for the better.

How to Help

The Blanchet House serves breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday each week.  Volunteers duties include
-help prepare, plate and serve meals
-greeting guests
-helping with clean-up
-passing out utensils

Volunteer contact may contact Patrick Daley at (503) 226-3911 or by email at chezblanchet@aol.com.

The Blanchet House also takes donations online:

Or if you would like to make a donation over the phone please contact Brian Ferschweiler at (503) 241-4340

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1 Response to Volunteer Bound: Blanchet House of Portland

  1. jeanne gower says:

    What a gift you are giving, that of self. I pray for you both everyday to have a safe journey.
    Thank you for sharing with me.

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