Insights + Reflections

Serving without Hurting

May 27, 2018

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I’ve already made a huge mistake in my efforts to help the poor.

Three years ago I and some friends visited a local food distribution facility that provides food for those in need. My sincere feelings of compassion for those who don’t have food led me to volunteer that day. Yet to my surprise, I left their facility enraged at what I’d seen. We came to find workers throwing the food we just prepared directly in the trash. To say I was appalled is an understatement and I quickly started firing questions as to why they would throw perfectly good food away when there were people on the streets hungry for something to eat. Met with apathetic responses, my friends and I instantly started to devise a plan to help distribute some of the food to the poor, so they wouldn’t throw it all away. The plan was simple; we'd hand out the food directly to Atlanta's homeless, ourselves. It was a good idea in theory. 

The organization agreed to allow us to take some of their frozen food, which was packaged nicely in serving containers. While being unfamiliar with many parts of the city, we drove forward with our plan. As soon as we arrived at our destination, I was soaked with fear. Is this safe? Is this even allowed? Are we going to get in trouble for distributing food here? This is where the story gets ugly, and unwittingly, I did one of the most shameful things I’ve ever done.

As we got out of the car and started to walk the streets, our nerves got the best of us. Our walking became swifter and we started to hand out food very quickly. My heart was exploding because I couldn’t stand to see so many people on the streets, yet my heart was pumping because I was afraid and didn’t know what I was doing! As we continued to hand out food, our fear grew and we eventually started leaving garbage bags full of frozen food at their feet and ran away. SHAME ON ME. I wouldn’t be surprised if they perceived us as treating them like dogs. In hindsight - What were they going to do with frozen food anyway?


I cringe when I think about that day.

What started as a plan with the best intentions, led to a shameful outcome. I was frustrated with the organization throwing away food and was even more frustrated that my efforts to help the poor, I’m sure, actually hurt them. Seeming as though the food waste was largely out of our hands, a better alternative would have been not to distribute any food that day. Instead, we could have better educated ourselves first and then devised a plan to safely walk the streets and get to know the homeless. If we had taken the time to get to know them, perhaps we would have understood that they didn’t need frozen food, because they were often near a soup kitchen that could provide warm food. More importantly, I’m sure we would have found that they too have things to offer and simply need to be treated like human beings with value and worth. Instead of helping the homeless, I imagine we took away what they needed most…their dignity. 

The Chalmers Center said it very nicely, “You’ll never minister effectively to those you think less of.” In order to truly serve the poor, we need to better understand their unique gifts by building relationships with them. Shifting our mindset to see those who lack material resources as only lacking material resources is key. They aren’t any less of a person simply because they don’t have things . In fact, these same people have lots to offer in areas we may actually be lacking ourselves. Each of us is broken in our own ways and bonding through our brokenness is a great way to lift each other up!


hands coming together all painted in a red heart


As I’m learning, I realize that serving regularly will give me the knowledge and understanding I need to become more comfortable interacting with the homeless and to do it in a way that builds their dignity. This is why I’ve made it part of my mission to learn how to serve the materially poor in a way that empowers them!

Stay tuned for future stories as I walk with the poor, allowing us to learn together how we can best serve those in need!

Until then, consider, have you unintentionally hurt the poor while trying to help?

Stephanie Jacobs | Storyteller & Advocate for Social Justice

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