Volunteering Heals My Soul

I am not sure when I first heard about 18 Reasons, but I do remember the first class I attended. It was a blue cheese tasting with Neal’s Yard Dairy from London. The 18 Reasons space was tiny. There were about 25 of us crammed around these amazing wood tables cut from the same tree with shellac filling any holes and knots to create a smooth surface. The guys from Neal’s Yard Dairy stood at one end of the room talking about the cheeses they had brought from England. And the 2 volunteers gingerly stepped around them as they refilled glasses and cleared detritus. The room quickly got warm, but there was a lovely sense of intimacy in that tiny space. (They have since moved to a larger, but still intimate space next door to the Bi-Rite Creamery.) I felt like I became friends with the hosts during those two hours. It was magical. I still have the menu from that event.

Because of that event, I became a member of 18 Reasons and took quite a few classes. A few months later I got an email asking for volunteers. Sure, I would be happy to do that. I love being around food, had tons of experience with events and had recently ended my tenure as a culinary assistant at Sur La Table. So I signed up. In the beginning I wasn’t completely dedicated; I was spread pretty thin with a day job that was pushing 60 hour weeks and I had other volunteer commitments.  Last year I realized that I needed to simplify my life. I was over-extending myself and I was burning out. I was not happy and my health (both mental and physical) was suffering.

I don’t know if it is just part of what makes me me, or if it was being raised in a Catholic farming community, but I am someone who always has to give back. I am not rich by any stretch of the imagination, some months I am living paycheck to paycheck. However, I still find it necessary to be philanthropic with my money and my time. Last year I sat down and looked at how I was spending my time and my money and I made some changes. I gave up my membership to a volunteer organization because my heart wasn’t in it anymore. Rather, I realized that my heart and soul need to be around food.  Being involved with food events, food philanthropies, and food justice were the things that energized me and ignited my passions. So I recommitted to 18 Reasons.

Current art exhibition at 18 Reasons: "Over the Table, On the Fridge, In the Kitchen" photo by Susanna Chau

Current art exhibition at 18 Reasons: “Over the Table, On the Fridge, In the Kitchen”
photo by Susanna Chau

Interestingly it was around this same time that Sam Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Market and founder of 18 Reasons, was finalizing his talks with Sarah Nelson, founder of Three Squares.  The organizations merged and 18 Reasons became an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, with a new mission statement: 18 Reasons is building a healthy community of cooks, gardeners and eaters of all ages empowered to create social change through food.  Now all of 18 Reasons’ classes and events are fundraisers for their program Cooking Matters, which offers free classes in cooking and nutrition to low-income families, the curriculum for which was created by the national non-profit dedicated to ending childhood hunger in America, Share Our Strength.

Ok this is all great, but what’s your point? (Yes, I have had many people in my life compare me and my stories to Rose Nylund.) My point is that now, more than ever, I realize how important my time is for 18 Reasons. By utilizing volunteer staff instead of paying for help, they are able to devote more resources to Cooking Matters. But for me it goes deeper than that.

Michelle McKenzie talking to students about cooking techniques. photo by Susanna Chau

Michelle McKenzie talking to students about cooking techniques. And you can see part of that gorgeous wood table.

In the beginning of this blog I wrote that my obsession with all things food is what helped pull me out of a depression and that “this blog is my journey to find community through food.” My involvement with 18 Reasons is a clear example of that. There were days when I was struggling and found it hard to care about anything, but then I would have a shift at 18 Reasons and I couldn’t let them down. I had to go because they were depending on me. I would work hard, but would also laugh with the other volunteers and learn from the instructors. And by the end of the shift, I would be tired, but I felt ten times better.

There have been days when the day job has been ugly and I am beaten down and exhausted, and I’m practically falling asleep on the bus on my way to work an event at 18 Reasons. Within minutes of getting there, however, I am lifted up by the people around me. There is so much energy and joy in that space, that I can’t help but forget the issues at work or in my personal life and just be in the moment. And of course I am always excited to be able to try the foods made in class, or wines poured at a tasting. And when I work the 18th Hour Café they host on Thursday nights, I always get to take home some Tartine bread. Heaven! That’s one of the benefits of being a volunteer, you get the perks of the food and wine.

18 Reasons has been my salvation this past year. I give them my time, but they give me so much more. I can’t imagine my life without being a part of this amazing community.

Lemony Arugula Salad

Lemony Arugula SaladThis is a simple seasonal salad, best with wild baby arugula that you can find at farmers markets and organic markets in the Spring.
2 cups wild baby arugula
1 tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (you want the good stuff here)
1 tbsp dried cranberries
1 tbsp sliced almonds
ricotta salata
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 350º F. When heated, place almonds on a sheet pan and toast for 10-15 minutes, tossing them halfway through, until they are golden brown. Remove from oven when done and spread them out on a plate to allow to cool.

Wash and dry arugula and place in large bowl, add salt and pepper to taste. Add cooled almonds and cranberries to the bowl. Put lemon juice and olive oil in small bowl and whisk until emulsified, add salt and pepper to taste. Pour dressing along the side of the bowl and toss ingredients until almonds and cranberries are mixed in and everything is coated with the dressing. Divide among two plates. Top each with shaved ricotta salata. Serve.

This entry was posted in About Me, Eating Seasonally, Healing, Inspiration, Recipes, Volunteering and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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