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‘I belong to a community’: Volunteers reflect on why they serve

For decades, volunteers have – and continue to be – the lifeblood of the Food Depository’s work.

Their dedication and passion make it possible to feed our neighbors facing hunger, especially amid the COVID-19 crisis. Since the start of the pandemic two years ago, Food Depository volunteers have contributed more than 160,000 hours of service.

This April, National Volunteer Month, we honor and thank those who give their time and energy to our mission. Here are just a few of their stories:

Eddy Gonzalez

When the pandemic first hit Chicago in March 2020, Eddy Gonzalez saw calls for volunteers to help pack food in the Food Depository’s warehouse.

He decided to come help, and he hasn’t stopped ever since.

Eddy Gonzalez poses for a photo in the Food Depository's volunteer orientation room.

Eddy Gonzalez

Gonzalez, 35, said he feels privileged to not struggle with food insecurity. His family emigrated from Guatemala to Chicago when he was 3 years old. His parents struggled – Gonzalez’s father worked in a factory and his mother worked in housekeeping – but they hid it well from him and his brother. When the family would on visits back to their home country, Gonzalez remembers being struck by seeing other families facing poverty and hunger.

“The idea that there are people who struggle in Chicago – if I can help avoid that for them, I will,” he said.

To date, he’s logged nearly 300 hours at repack sessions and helps at a local food pantry. He also was an early participant in the Food Depository’s new Spanish-language volunteer sessions, El Reempaque. The monthly program was created to make volunteering more equitable for all Chicagoans.

His driving motivation, he said, is knowing his work has a direct impact.

“The benefit of your volunteer time, of your work here, will literally mean somebody can eat,” Gonzalez said about giving back. “If you do sacrifice a little bit of yourself, the reality is that there will be people who can – and surely do – benefit from it. This world is way too difficult if we’re all alone.”

Edmund Leong

For high school senior Edmund Leong, spending his Saturdays packing food is a great way to relieve stress.

“Homework can be a big stressor in my life,” said Leong, 18. “Here, you can kill two birds with one stone. You can both relax but also contribute to your community.”

Edmund Leong packs food in the Food Depository warehouse

Edmund Leong

Leong, who lives in the South Loop with his family, attends the nearby Jones College Prep. He was first introduced to the Food Depository through the school’s service club in fall of 2020. He and his classmates came for a group session.

After that, Leong kept coming regularly on his own. Since then, he’s logged more than 120 hours volunteering at the Food Depository and has been encouraging his fellow students to get involved as well.

The experience, he said, has broadened his worldview. He enjoys the opportunity to work with and meet other volunteers from different walks of life. Being a volunteer, he said, has also given him more perspective about the challenges that other people across the city are facing.

“It reminds me that I belong to a community – that Chicago is way more than my single apartment building.”

Sherrie Dentley

Like so many, Sherrie Dentley was hit hard by the isolation that came with the early months of the pandemic.

Sherrie Dentley assembles boxes in the Food Depository warehouse during a volunteer session.

Sherrie Dentley assembles boxes in the Food Depository warehouse during a volunteer session.

Dentley, 55, lost her job as a hotel reservationist at the start of the 2020 lockdowns. Her father died just a few months later.

Instead of limiting her involvement in the community to just the necessities, like going to the grocery store or doctor’s office, she wanted to do more.

“Everyone has their own struggles and challenges, but I don’t want to be so insular and narrow that I can only see what I need to do,” Dentley said. “There’s things outside myself that need to be done.”

Dentley, a native of the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, has been volunteering regularly for the last year and a half. She also serves as a Volunteer Ambassador, assisting other volunteers and helping repack sessions run smoothly. The self-described “helper-type” is also making personal strides. She’s currently back in school to start a new career in library services.

It’s the knowledge that she and the rest of her fellow volunteers are making a difference that keeps Dentley coming back through the Food Depository doors week after week.

“It’s just a very warm feeling you get knowing you’re helping someone,” she said.

Look out for more volunteer stories this month on The Hunger Beat.

For those interested in giving back, sign up for a volunteer session at the Food Depository. Or, to help out closer to home, find a partner site near you by using our Find Food Map and ask about volunteer opportunities.  

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