Working in the soup kitchen at El Alfarero, it was common for the women running the kitchen to let me leave a little early.
“Pero todavía no he terminado con las verduras,” I would say.
“No, no. Está bien. Las chicas van a hacer el resto.” And just like that, I could go rest while the women stayed behind, starting preparations for the next day’s meals.
The soup kitchen at the El Alfarero community center is run by a group of women volunteers, most of whom live in the surrounding area. Located off of Zepita street in the outskirts of Buenos Aires Ciudad, this kitchen serves hundreds of families in the neighborhood every day. Despite being recognized by the government, the facility receives minimal funding. As such, the critical work done everyday to support this community is done by volunteers, just like myself, who receive no pay.
I came to Buenos Aires as a first time volunteer, and during my first two weeks here, I worked in the kitchen at El Alfarero. The women usually work from 7:00 am to 4:00pm, but I only had to come in from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm.
I was quite nervous on my first day. The first task I was given was to peel a couple bags of carrots, which, embarrassingly, I had never done before. My initial struggles with this simple task made me even more nervous about working in the kitchen. However, the warm atmosphere inside the kitchen eased my nerves immediately. The women are playing music, talking, debating, and having a good time while they are working. Plus, all of them were kind enough to try and talk to me even though my Spanish is not very good. Still, what goes on in the kitchen is not all fun, obviously. There is work to be done and hundreds of mouths to feed in the morning and in the afternoon. There is no time to fool around, and I would be peeling, cutting, and washing vegetables constantly for hours until we all took a break for lunch.
I spent the previous summer washing dishes at a restaurant and, frankly, did not enjoy the job at all. Still, I always had the money to look forward to, and whenever I would feel overwhelmed on a busy night, I would think about the money to motivate myself. Here in the soup kitchen, the same amount of work is being done without any monetary reward. There is a completely different motivation behind the work, one which is hard to see at first.
It is difficult to think about the big picture while working. As I was working inside the kitchen, all my focus would be on the task at hand, and there was no real time to think about how my actions could be helping this particular community. Every time I left El Alfarero to go home, however, I was given a reminder of the reality of the situation and the importance of the work being done. Every time I stepped outside onto the street, I walked through a long line of people waiting to receive food, food which the women and I had been preparing all morning long. It was at this particular moment every day that I would feel the immediacy of the situation at hand. It helped me realize how vital this soup kitchen was to the livelihood of the people in the neighborhood. If the kitchen were to close for just a single day, hundreds of hungry families would need to spend the day without any food.
My last day of work at El Alfarero was one of those days when the women would let me leave a little early.
“No hay más trabajo?” I asked Melisa.
“Sí! Siempre hay trabajo!”
Although my time at the soup kitchen came to an end, the work will continue, just as long as the need for it persists.