Desperation and Shame

Desperation and ShameI had just returned from a lunch meeting, when I noticed an email in my inbox from a name I did not recognize.   Sitting down at my computer, I started to read what may be the most lengthy email communication I’ve received to date.  It was the kind of long, involved message that is usually sent by a con artist from Nigeria or elsewhere, phishing for gullible people to fleece.  

I quickly discerned, however, that this message was not one of those.   Instead, it was one of the frequent requests for help with food that staff at Second Harvest Food Bank receive via email and by phone.   In literally every case, our staff is able to connect up the person in need with at least one or more of the 500 partner feeding programs across Central Florida that distribute food from Second Harvest Food Bank.

The messages are nearly always heart-wrenching, desperate requests from people who are at the end of their resources.   They come from both individuals and families, and include people who are sick, disabled, retired, recently unemployed, or have other financial challenges.  

Our most typical messages come from people who have never received assistance with food in their lifetimes, and who just don’t know where to even begin looking for help.   Most often, these are people who have worked, paid taxes, played by the rules, and never imagined themselves in such dire financial straits that they wouldn’t be able to buy enough food.   Many times, they are people who have also volunteered and donated funds and food to our mission in the past.   

 The stories they tell us are always very unique to the writer, but seem to have a few commonalities as well.   First, the tone is always one of desperation and near despair.   Can you imagine the stress of not knowing where you’ll obtain something as basic to your survival as food?   Or how you’ll be feeding your children tomorrow?   Second, there is always a deep sense of shame and embarrassment that comes through.   It’s the reason the stories are so long and involved.   These folks want you to understand that they’ve tried very hard, and that life just isn’t working out for them right now.  

They detail every aspect of their illnesses, job loss, or financial obligations, even offering to send copies of bills and bank statements to show that they have nothing left.   They talk about having to skip meals and to add water to the milk they feed their babies to make it go further.   They wistfully describe their former careers as salespeople, or as bricklayers, or as paramedics, or as soldiers who defended our nation.  

The final line of the message is often something along the lines of “I never knew it could be this way…Would someone like me qualify for food assistance?”   

As we read these messages, it’s hard not to feel that sinking “There but for the grace of God go I” feeling that such an intimate sharing of despair can produce.  Still, we know that the answer to their question about qualifying for food assistance is a resounding “Yes!”   Every year, hundreds of thousands of our neighbors humble themselves and visit local emergency food pantries for help.   It’s usually a temporary need, and most often they get back on their feet with a little hand from someone who cares.  

We at Second Harvest Food Bank feel extraordinarily privileged to play such an important part in helping our neighbors in need when they’re struggling.   It’s a privilege granted to us by people who care enough to donate food, time, and money to a mission that is growing in scope and impact every day.    Together we’re able to change lives for the better.  

Greg Higgerson
Vice President, Development

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