This past Friday I began the realization of a dream I have had for 8 years, ever since I first moved to New York City. I remember being struck and saddened when I first moved here by how many needy people one sees on a day to say basis, and while that number is still higher than we would like to believe, the unfortunate truth is that we start to not see these people; not really. We learn to look away or brush past without stopping when someone on the street or in the subway asks for change, food, or help. We learn to block out the looks, sounds, and smells of those who are living in desperate destitution. We start to find it difficult to pay any attention to because it's too sad, or too offensive, or too annoying in the middle of our busy day- besides, what can we really DO about it, anyway? Don't we have places to be and our own busy lives to live? And aren't we all just struggling to get by, never mind the additional burden of helping someone else?
That's where my dream came in. When I first lived in the city, I was working in the art world and making a startlingly low salary by New York City standards (yay for working in one of the least lucrative career fields in one of the most expensive cities in the world!), so I was making do but barely, with very little money to spare. I had lived in smaller European cities before and had spent significant time in NYC on many visits over the years, and I always took naturally to cities so my adjustment was not difficult. But that doesn't change the fact that all of a sudden seeing homeless and hungry people begging or scavenging on a day to day basis wore on me, both as a newcomer to the city and as a sensitive and empathetic person. While I certainly wasn't in a financial position to donate any real money to speak of, I immediately began to think about how I could come up with a plan to take what I had in terms of money and time and turn it into a way to directly help people who were suffering in New York City. That is when my dream was born, that very first year: to go to the store, purchase basic sandwich supplies that I would turn into packed lunches at home, and hand them out myself to the homeless and hungry in the streets of New York. Nothing fancy or large scale, just what I could afford and do with what time and money I had. But what appealed to me most about it was how direct it was- actually putting food right into the hands of the people who need it. How easy is that? I knew I could do that.
And yet, for some reason, it didn't come to pass. I thought about it a whole lot, for years- it would pop up in my mind, asking me to commit to at least trying it, since I had been wanting to for years. But it always got put off for one reason or another. I would sometimes find myself intentionally carrying around some item of food (a part of my lunch, or leftovers from a restaurant meal) until I saw someone who was needy who I would gladly hand it over to. And every single time, I would think...."You could do this for real. You could follow that dream. What's stopping you? It would be so easy...." And yet it still wouldn't happen. Over the years my hunger for charitable work led me to look into volunteer positions with New York Cares, Meals on Wheels, homes for the elderly in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and finally I settled on a position volunteering at C.H.I.P.S., the local soup kitchen in Brooklyn, one day a week for 6 months. I was satisfied with having finally settled on one organization and followed through on this impulse, and it was an extremely valuable experience. I was thrilled to be tangibly helping needy people and I was personally benefiting from the perspective that brings, but it was difficult to commit to a regular schedule there, because as a self-employed person my own work schedule is constantly shifting, and also, due to a (very fortunately) large amount of volunteers at this soup kitchen, I sometimes felt there wasn't really that much work for me to do when I was there. I was grateful and impressed at seeing this venerable soup kitchen working so well and helping so many people, but I felt that perhaps my own help could be more effective elsewhere, especially given my scheduling needs.
So that brings us to present day...I have been yearning for years to find a charitable outlet that directly helps and nourishes those in need, while also fitting into a construct that would be workable for me given what I have to offer in terms of money and time. It suddenly became clear to me that it was now time to follow my long held dream, my little organization of one, hitting the streets of NYC to hand out food to the homeless, hungry, and needy. Simple. Real. Perfect. Finally!
The same day I had this realization, several hours earlier before it had come to light, I was walking down a quiet street in Brooklyn and I found a $10 bill sitting discarded in the snow. I looked around, and there was no one anywhere nearby to ask if they had dropped it. I made sure, and then tucked it into my pocket, taking it as a sign of providence and a message to trust that all will be taken care of if we have faith and remain positive. Truth be told, at the exact moment I looked down saw the money I had been harboring real estate worries- my husband and I soon want to upgrade to a different home in the same neighborhood, and I sometimes wonder about how that will actually happen- so this was a much needed message of providence indeed, and I was happy to accept it! No sooner had I picked it up, though, that I began to think about how to constructively use it. What I benefited from was the message of bounty from the universe and the freedom from worry that it brought, but I felt that I wanted to use the money itself towards a charitable cause, in order to give that bounty back into the pool and let it benefit someone else's life in whatever small way it could. Later that evening, when pondering how for many reasons I was missing the charitable outlet in my life since stopping my work at the soup kitchen, I had the realization that it was time to follow my dream. And at that moment I knew exactly what the $10 was for. It would be the financial beginnings of Spread The Love! I began making lists.
Since I never abandoned my original idea and it was always floating around in the back of my mind at any given time, I didn't have to spend much time brainstorming. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. What: Sandwiches. Who: Homeless and hungry people. Where: Streets and subways of New York City. Now, some things had changed- I wasn't yet a certified nutrition professional when this dream first formed, so I did want to make a slight adjustment to the actual content of the sandwiches I'd be handing out in order to deliver optimal nutrition in a simple and easy package. And while I insisted that the food be good quality, it still had to be relatively inexpensive, because I was funding this project myself and I wanted to feed as many people as possible. It also had to remain simple, because part of the beauty of this plan is its pure simplicity and feasibility. Luckily, I had considered all of these things before, which is why I had settled on simple sandwiches; so all that was needed were a few adjustments in keeping with my now honed nutrition philosophy, and with the bonus of a Trader Joe's in my neighborhood for reasonably priced but good quality supplies, I was off and running. The next morning, I went out and bought what I would need: two large loaves of whole multi-grain bread, two jars of sunflower seed butter, two large jars of organic strawberry jam, and two bags of organic apples, along with plastic baggies for the sandwiches and brown paper bags to pack the lunches. I came home and got to work preparing the goods!
So, why did I choose this particular meal? For several reasons. The building blocks of healthy nutrition are complex carbohydrates, protein, fat, fiber, minerals and vitamins. I wanted to make a simple meal that could impart as much of those nutrients as possible, while still remaining relatively inexpensive and easy to transport, which would also not require refrigeration (I knew some people would be saving the food for later and did not have access to refrigeration) or pose a problem for those with certain food allergies and/or dietary constraints. You may not think of this, but some people who are hungry are still vegetarians. Or allergic to nuts. Or don't eat certain animal foods. Or don't digest dairy well. This is one of the valuable lessons I learned at the soup kitchen- just because someone is desperate doesn't mean they don't have their own particular wants and needs, and I wanted to honor those as best I could, especially because this meal takes those considerations in mind and still fits in keeping with my own approach to optimal nutrition which is that a diet based in wholesome, natural plant foods is best for health and wellness.
Whole multi-grain bread, due to its high whole grain content, provides complex carbohydrates for energy and stamina while also offering a high amount of fiber to aid digestion, along with protein which builds tissue and imparts strength, and essential minerals and vitamins offered from the whole grain in the bread. Sunflower seed butter is a handy alternative to nut butters, which are a common allergen, yet looks and tastes exactly the same as peanut butter (albeit more expensive), and offers a great source of easily digestible protein along with a high amount of healthy fat to keep the body nourished and able to carry out all of its multiple organ functions. Sunflower seeds also offer an impressive mineral profile and a decent amount of vitamins; minerals and vitamins are essential to health, bodily function and immune function, and they are often hard to obtain for those who are restricted to an extremely limited food supply. The jam is mostly there for flavor and a small amount of fruit vitamins, so I was sure to pick an organic, low sugar version made from organic strawberries and nothing artificial. The apple is there to provide additional fiber as well as crucial vitamins, namely Vitamin C, which is plentiful in apples and plays an important role in immune health.
As I made these Sunbutter and jam sandwiches , I was aware that I was quite literally "spreading the love" even before I hit the streets to actually Spread The Love, and so in every sandwich I carved a heart on the inside (just like I do when I make one for my husband), and as I pressed each sandwich together I said the words "I Love You" so that my intention and energy would be absorbed into this food and thus received by those eating it. Spread The Love is the name of this project because its purpose is to deliver love and nourishment through an act of kindness to those in need. The name feels absolutely perfect.
Once all the lunches were prepared -16 lunches in total for this first foray- I packed up my bag (and yes, it *happened* to be my love hearts bag, but only because it was the only bag I had that was the right size! we'll call it a happy accident) and set out in the snow to deliver them into the hands that needed them. I decided to stick to the subway trains and platforms first; I figured that would offer me the greatest likelihood of finding the people I was looking for in a concentrated area, especially since it was such a cold and snowy day and that type of weather tends to drive many needy people underground seeking warmth and safety. I plotted a route through some of the largest, busiest subway stations in Manhattan with the most trains coming through- Union Square, Herald Square, Times Square, Port Authority, and others- and at each one I would get off the train and canvas the station, walking up and down each platform for each different train, handing out the lunches to the needy people I found along the way. The first thing I noticed was that, given our learned tendency to overlook needy and homeless people as we are rushing from place to place in our day, I really had to keep my eyes peeled to find them. We are all so accustomed to brushing past the person asking for change, begging for food, or sleeping on the cold hard floor, that our eyes become trained in this aversion...and yet now I was actively seeking them out, looking for them, hoping to find them. And it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be, but I did find them, and as I became enriched from this shift in perspective I committed to not turn away from these people anymore, to be aware of them at all times, and to help them whenever I could.
I decided on some ground rules early on for whom I would approach and how: I decided I would stick to mostly central, populated areas for the sake of safety and also to find people most easily, that I would ask each person before handing them some food in order to establish my intention, show that it was safe and out of kindness, and give them a choice in the matter (one person did actually say no), and that I would only offer food to those who were clearly presenting as needy or homeless by either begging, rummaging through garbage, sleeping on a bench or outside, or otherwise exhibiting a derelict state. This required a willingness to observe carefully, because while some cases were obvious, not all needy people "look" like they are at first glance, and not all people who look unkempt are actually homeless or needy. This was especially the case for a middle aged man I observed, dressed normally in jeans and a jacket, standing around on a half-full subway platform as people buzzed around him or waited for the train...only when he thought no one was looking would he turn around and pick through a large garbage can beside where he lingered, hunting for bits of food or something he could use. When I approached him and said "Excuse me," he looked surprised and frightened, as though he'd been caught in the act and would be in trouble. There was an element of shame as well as fear, until I followed by extending my hand with a brown bag lunch in it and saying "Would you like some food? It's a packed lunch." His face softened with relief first, then realization, and finally gratitude. This reaction played out again and again as I made my ways through first the subways and then the streets of New York. I realized then how often the homeless and needy in large cities are accustomed not only to being ignored by passersby, but to being apprehended in some way, told to move along, or perhaps even chastised. Almost everyone I approached seemed surprised and a little bit taken a back...they were clearly not used to being spoken to or acknowledged, certainly not with kindness.
When I had spent about 2 hours wandering the platforms and trains of the subway stations without yet popping above ground, I decided to hit the streets for a while to see what I could find. I was ready for some fresh air by then and wanted to make sure I found some of the people who were on the streets as well, in order to Spread The Love more thoroughly. When I popped above ground at West 4th Street, the snow was really billowing down and the streets were pretty empty; it was almost evening at that point, and I became concerned that I wouldn't know where to go to find people outside in this weather. I was pretty tired at this point as well, so I decided to just walk a loosely planned route through some populous areas nearby and see what happened. I came across a man in Washington Square Park, sitting on a bench with garbage bags all around him. It was so cold and snowy that he was the only person in the park, besides me. Like most of the people I gave lunches to that day, he thanked me graciously, again and again, and said "God Bless" several times as I walked away smiling at him. I found several more people taking cover under the scaffolding along the lower end of 5th Avenue. I found a seemingly mentally disturbed man sitting at a small table in a Starbucks, staring down at his shaking hands and glancing around nervously while muttering to himself, clearly hoping that no one would notice him and shoo him back out into the cold from which he had found temporary respite. All of these people were approached gently, spoken to kindly, and given a bag of food if they so desired. All but one person accepted.
At the end of the day, it took me almost 4 hours to hand out all of the lunches, but I did not give up until every one was handed out. In the future I will take what I've learned and apply it in order to maximize the number of people I can reach in that time. This is not a one time thing: I have held this dream for a long time, and now that I have realized it, I plan to make it a regular part of my life. I learned a lot from this first experience of Spreading The Love: namely, how the acknowledgement of a suffering person, the speaking of a kind word, the willingness to look, accept, and care, are as important as the actual assistance you are providing. The food was greatly appreciated and much needed by these people, I could tell- but so was the validation of being spoken to kindly by another human being who wasn't just breezing by, unseeing and uncaring. It felt good for me too, of course. I felt tired, and somewhat saddened by what I had seen, but mostly brimming with an immense hope for the myriad possibilities of a small scale approach to helping people- one person at a time. We can all do this in our lives, we can all take part in an exchange of positive energy. There are some images from that day that stay with me: the older Eastern European woman in Union Square subway station, begging in a wheelchair with one hand extended, unable to speak English to thank me but gazing at up at me with tears forming in her eyes and a smile spreading across her aged face. The moving sight of a man sitting all alone in a park covered with stark clean white snow, with only garbage bags of nothing gathered around him for security, but a love in his heart that allowed him to smile broadly and heartily "God Bless" me over and over for helping him.
Spread the Love is going to be a regular part of my world from now on. I don't know yet how often I will do it, but I am committing to maintaining this project going forward. I may be only one person, but I know how much one person can make a difference, and small scale is where big change starts. I will be funding this project myself, but in time, I plan to look into asking some neighborhood businesses if they would be willing to make donations of food for this project. If you yourself feel inclined to help this project along by making a small donation, I would of course be very grateful, as would those on the receiving end of the food I am providing- I promise that any amount, no matter how small, will be completely and efficiently used towards the purchase of food that will be delivered directly into the hands of the needy. If you've been looking for an easy, no hassle way to make a small no-minimum contribution to charity, here's your chance! I will post more in the future about the continuing efforts of Spread The Love, and I hope this story has inspired you to seek out small ways to make big changes in your own communities. Even if by just remembering to acknowledge and dignify all of the souls you come across in life.
I would like to share this video, which is extremely beautiful and moving, and which helped inspire me to follow my own dream with Spread The Love. The actions we take to spread love and caring to those around us contain more power to change the world than anything else: video of the works of Mr. Narayanan Krishnan.