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Sauerkraut Triangle, North Dakota: Prairie Places Festival (Day 1)

Saturday, May 19, 2012; Wishek and Napoleon, ND (and various points of interest in the vicinity)

No, there’s not really a town called “Sauerkraut Triangle” in North Dakota, but maybe there should be. The “Sauerkraut Triangle” refers to an area in south central North Dakota settled by German Russians in the late 1880s (Lawrence Welk is one of the most famous descended from these pioneers). This area is the site of Preservation North Dakota’s 19th Annual Meeting, the Prairie Places Festival, where I am volunteering today and tomorrow. Preservation North Dakota ( is a nonprofit “dedicated to preserving and celebrating the architecture, historic places, and communities in the varied landscapes of our prairie state.”

I’m having a blast, learning a ton, and meeting really interesting people. And eating food I’ve never had before: salt pork ribs, knoephla soup, and authentic kuchen.

I thought about calling this trip “Gopher in North Dakota” because that’s basically what I’ve been doing—I am an all-around “gopher,” including driving the conference organizer to meet the dinner caterer, assisting a guest speaker with audio-visual setup, and helping the caterer carry leftovers back to her car.

Day’s highlights

St. Andrews Lutheran Church Choir put on a special afternoon for us, Zeeland, ND

Caravanning (10 cars or so) across the prairie to St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church and Cemetery outside of Zeeland, ND, a historic Lutheran church (actually two churches) built in 1893 and 1906: We heard the story of German migration to the Black Sea area of Russia, and then to the prairies of North Dakota, punctuated by hymns in the local German dialect sung by the church choir, almost all elders whose parents or grandparents had migrated.  Singing “America the Beautiful” all together at the end was a most fitting way to conclude a truly moving story of grit and cultural preservation. This legacy, a source of enormous and well-deserved pride for the locals, is enduring yet vulnerable. Afterward they hosted us in the stone church for coffee and delicious cookies.

Grotto of the Holy Family and Prairie Bells, about 16 miles east of Linton, ND

Getting to tour the area with Suzzanne Kelley, a key conference organizer and past president of PND: Suzzanne was the one who responded enthusiastically to my request out of the blue to help with the conference. We went to see the Prairie Bells (preserved from three local church buildings that no longer exist—you can ring them, and we did!) and Grotto of the Holy Family (inspired by Italian grottos).

Napoleon Livestock Auction Barn, Napoleon, ND

Dinner at the Napoleon Livestock Auction Barn, not a restaurant but as the name says, a real livestock auction barn: I got to help Debra Marquart, born in Napoleon and now professor of English at Iowa State University, set up for her plenary session, drawn from her memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. I’ve begun reading it, and not only is it well-researched historically, it is also poignant, keenly observed, and unflinchingly honest. The perfect way to complete my cultural immersion in this unique area of the world.

Dinner in a barn! (and Debra Marquart setting up for her presentation) – Napoleon, ND

What I’ve Learned Today

A big theme of today has to be community. Before I arrived, I wondered how I would be seen as the “outsider” and how I would fit in—my typical mental construction about unfamiliar people and situations. In just a few short hours, I was able to join the community by offering my support. People have been genuinely open to newcomers like me as well as old buddies. I’ve been taken in by everyone I’ve met, with friendly curiosity about who I am and what I’m doing here. There were times I noticed myself pulling back, hesitating. I wanted to relax at times (as in slack off, which is something I also do in groups—“someone else will take care of it”). When I noticed myself falling into the old habit, I reminded myself that my job here and now is to help out. So I kept offering to do more, and the result is that very satisfying exhausted-contented feeling (like a “runner’s high,” except connected with other people instead of solitary). I had more fun than I’ve had in long time both helping out and caravanning around the prairie with a bunch of new friends.

If today was the main course of salt pork ribs, Day 2 in North Dakota is the jello dessert, coming right up.

Delaware – St. Stephen’s Pantry

Tuesday, May 8: How hard can it be to hand out food? People show up, you hand them food, they walk away with it, and one hopes that it enhances their sense of personal security that day, however slightly: they have food to eat for a few more days. Turns out that it’s pretty hard work—both mentally and physically. I found that out volunteering this morning with the great people at St. Stephen’s Pantry, a service of Lutheran Community Services (LCS) of Delaware ( in Wilmington.

The pantry distributes over a half a million meals to hungry people every year. Aaron Ballett, LCS Assistant Program Director, directs the program and Cher Frampton is the LCS Volunteer Coordinator. They both pitched in today when they could because we were short volunteers. Peter Buttenheim, an experienced volunteer and all-around sage, ran the crew today. He told me that a minimum staff should be 5 people. At first it was just Peter and I, which made me glad I was there to help, though in reality Peter had to spend quite a bit of time training me. Volunteer Don Schaeffer later joined us, so at various times there were up to five of us, but most of the time we were just two or three persons.

The work comes in waves. The physical part of the job is obvious—someone has to unload crates of food from wherever it comes from—food drives, the USDA, bakeries, and so on. I didn’t have to do that today. But of course, space is at a premium, and supply can be unpredictable—not only do you move food in once and hand it out, but you spend a considerable amount of time and energy moving it around and rearranging it, especially if a massive food drive delivery comes in. And you have to categorize it, and sometimes follow special rules: the USDA requires that its food be stored separately from all other food, even though in the end it all gets mixed together when distributed. Keeping USDA food—crucial to operations—in a separate storage area has led to the loss of a room that could have been used for other purposes.

Catching Peter Buttenheim rushing around, making it happen!

Which brings me to the mental part. With rules, of course there is paperwork. Regular morning pantry clients must have a referral (they also run a mobile pantry and other programs that don’t require a referral), and that means forms to fill out. I don’t know how many different agencies call in referrals—well more than a dozen. Peter patiently gave me the rundown, but of course being new I goofed up several times, forgetting to record the person’s ID number, or forgetting to have them sign the form. As anyone who works with forms knows, there are always those questions or spaces requiring answers that no longer apply or don’t have the right categories, as the rules change or as unique people present unique circumstances that the form wasn’t made to capture. So you write in extra information, you ignore some questions (ignoring takes mental effort!)–it’s a lot to track, but I suppose after experience you just know how to do it.

And then there is the food itself. This morning we were out of many things. There are prescribed menus from which to select items, quantities depending on the number of persons, but what if certain categories of food aren’t available, like today? No meat of any kind? Substitute beans (more beans in addition to the beans they’re already getting).

Reaching for more beans!

No cereal? Substitute matzoh (not wanted by at least one would-be recipient today). No tomato sauce? Just forget about the pasta. But don’t forget about the special items that may be on hand—like pistachios! Don’t hand out the Girl Scout cookies because there are pastries today with a much shorter shelf life. Filling the bags of food requires constant mental adjustments and new calculations as different foods arrive and disappear, all in one morning. Today we had a bonanza of baked goods to wrap up and top off people’s bags.

Which brings me to personal attention. Pantry staff make a point of providing food of good quality—no stale bread, no jelly doughnuts that were smashed with filling oozing out. And when they can, they give people choices. I saw Peter, even at his busiest—with the phone ringing, with people waiting in line, with bags to fill—asking people what they preferred. Would you like chicken cutlets or bacon, or (for families of several persons) one of each? One could easily just decide that people will get what they get, and “damn it, they should be grateful for it.” The ability to choose, even when the options are few and predetermined, is at the core of our concept of human dignity. Peter, Cher, Dan, and Aaron seemed to be all about supporting people’s dignity in any way possible.

Despite feeling overwhelmed at times with all the learning required, and wondering if I was being helpful (who’s going to have to deal with any mistakes I might leave in my wake?), I left the pantry ENERGIZED at 11:45 a.m., a few minutes before it was to wind down, after three hours of buzzing around answering the phone, filling bags, attending to clients, and squeezing in bits of conversation whenever possible. As I write this on the train back to DC (from where I’ll be flying fly home to Seattle this evening), I feel gratitude for the warm welcome and appreciation that the St. Stephen’s Pantry staff and volunteers extended to me—all because I showed up for three hours to do what they do all the time.

Where else can I “just show up” in my daily life to make a little difference for someone? Who has suggestions and experiences of their own to share?

[Next stop, German-Russian country and the Prairie Places Festival ( in North Dakota: from Bismarck to Wishek, Napoleon, and Lehr (May 18-20)]

Turning 50!

Welcome to my blog! Over the next year and beyond I will share my random acts of volunteering here. What are random acts of volunteering? Someone somewhere has probably defined it, but for the moment I’m going to say that I think of it as taking advantage of random, informal opportunities to offer myself to people and situations to be of service in whatever way I can be helpful. I’ll explore what this means in more depth in another post.

The Random Acts of Volunteering Project is much more than a blog. The blog is merely a tool to hold myself accountable by sharing my experiences in connecting with others and engaging in random acts of volunteering. I hope others may find something of value in reading about my experiences.

Why am I doing this? It all started as I was thinking of how to mark my 50th year and 50th birthday (in February 2013). I started pondering the number 50 and immediately thought of the 50 states. Turns out I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to all 50 states except Arkansas, Delaware, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Tennessee, and West Virginia (by “travel to” I mean being closer to the ground and more actively involved than just landing in an airport or passing through on a train. By this definition, Rhode Island counts because I’ve driven through in a car, even though I didn’t stop, but Delaware doesn’t, because I’ve only passed through on a train). So I’m also calling this the “50 by 50 Project.”

So I thought I’d try to hit the remaining 8 states over the next year, but I wanted to do something with more meaning. I’ve had a comfortable life and found myself inwardly focused for several years now. I’ve been missing the chance to give something of myself back to others. That’s where I got the idea to do something different, and so I’ve decided to see if I can set up volunteer opportunities for myself along the way. So far I’ve got Delaware and North Dakota planned.

I’m in Delaware tonight. Tomorrow I will work in the morning at St. Stephen’s Pantry, the biggest food pantry in Delaware. This is my first time doing this and I’m really excited about it. My visits are going to be short—typically one night or one weekend. Anyone ever done something like this? Will people trust me? How do I gain people’s trust? How do I make sure that I’m contributing, rather than making more work for people? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Stay tuned….

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