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Rolling with Detroit's mobile soup kitchen - Part Two

Back on The Salvation Army's Bed and Bread truck, a mobile soup kitchen that feed some 5,000 people daily, 365 days a year…

I watch at the first stop. I'm more than happy just to be an observer.

It's not because I'm scared or lazy. It's just weird to jump out of the van and start interviewing people who are there for a meal. There's something too slick about it. I'm not ready to get into people's faces.

Some who ask for meals are homeless, Maj. John Turner tells me. Most are unemployed. Others have a house and job – but they need a way to stretch their dollars. Getting a meal here allows them to have enough to cover utilities, Turner said.

Sunny weather means the numbers go up. People are around more, so they hear drivers honk the horn to announce the truck's arrival. Plus, kids are out of school and the parents need to get everyone fed.

Winter is a busy season as well. Yet fewer people may seek meals because they are more worried about finding shelter, Karen Floyd Sanders notes. (A full-time social worker rides along five days a week to offer help, like a place to stay at the shelter, substance-abuse counseling or support if they want to get information on the Army's programs, like getting a GED.)

This year, the demand for services in certain areas of The Salvation Army's work has gone up as much as 60 percent, Maj. Turner tells me. The Bed and Bread program consistently sees increases. Part of this is due to a new routing system they have, which put the trucks in more high-need areas. Partly it is due to the area's dramatically high unemployment rate.

Detroit's estimated unemployment rate is about 28 percent. Some one in three Detroit residents lives in poverty. About one in five Michigan children live in poverty. The ugly statistics go on and on.

At the second stop, I'm ready to get out. The van is unbearably hot. I feel useless. I'm taking lots of notes about other Salvation Army activities (more on those later). But I hate the idea of just hanging out while that truck is putting meals out there.

So, Andrea (Westfall, the PR lady for the Army/Franco Public Relations Group) nudges me. It's time to get out. I'm like some stumbling beast, trying to fit my huge self into this tiny truck. Ms. Williams is so petite she looks like my teenage babysitter, not some soup kitchen superhero.

I hand out a few hot chocolates and help Ms. Williams put tops on the hot soup. The soup, by the way, looks delicious. There are pieces of chicken, vegetables and spices floating in a rich broth. The sandwiches aren't thin, sad lunch meat. They're thick slices of ham on fluffy bread. The bananas are ripe and free of bruises.

“Put me to work,” I tell my drivers.

We get ready for the next stop. Once prepared, I buckle up and settle down in the back while Ms. Williams and the other staffer drive up front. I'm so oddly quiet in the back that Ms. Williams calls out to check on me.

“Just thinking,” I reply.

The houses flying by the window are run down in some parts, well-manicured in others. Generally, they are in poor condition; most look empty in fact. Some kids are outside playing together. A man walks to his car, ready for church. I see graffiti, tall grass, Angels' Night posters warning people that the abandoned houses are being watched.

At our stop, I pulled on my plastic gloves again. This time, I'm focusing on handing out hot chocolate without burning myself or anyone else. Everyone gets a full cup and I preserve my skin for another day. But I'm a little shaky.

Ms. Williams steps back and lets me take over. She seems plenty content to get the sandwiches ready and organize the truck for future stops. Everything is humming along. Everyone is getting their meals in a timely, chatting in line, talking to me through the window.

“Hey, white girl,” one older woman addresses me. “You have any coffee or just hot chocolate?”

No coffee, sorry. She just smiles, bugs me about Gov. Jennifer Granholm. I take no responsibility for Jenny G., I tell her.

Some 45 people receive meals at this stop. Many come back for another sandwich or banana. Kids receive a special bag with additional food in it. (The kids also ask two cups of hot chocolate each. I would have done the same; it was cold that day and it smelled like toasted marshmallows.)

And, with that, the trip is over. I thank Ms. Williams for putting up with me. She laughs and reminds me to come back. On Thanksgiving Day, they'll be doing full turkey dinners: fresh bird, mashed potatoes, green beans. “The gravy goes right here. I could use you,” she said.

Ultimately, I decided not to talk to anyone receiving meals on the record. I spoke to people through my window, and that felt a lot more natural to me. I didn't want to be Reporter Girl. I wanted to be helpful. That's all.

Did I make the right decision? I'm not sure. Perhaps getting their words (and names) would have been more interesting to you, the reader. But I felt like my presence was too glaring. I was just too obvious and the situation was too serious, I felt.

Andrea tells me that's common on your first ride. Ultimately, I plan on taking another. Many more, actually. The Salvation Army could use a lot more of me.

And a lot more of you. There is a Bed and Bread Club. Donate $10 a month ($120 annually) and you could feed one child or adult through The Salvation Army for a year.

That sounds pretty good.

To read another reporter's take on the ride, check out this article from The Detroit News. The video also is insightful.

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  • 1

    Wow, I didn't know one person could be the linchpin of an entire program! And I'm not even talking Ms. Williams (not that you'd have thought I was).

    "I" appears in excess of 20 times when you weren't a major actor in this event or program. Maybe, just maybe, this is permissible if you're posting this to influence others to help out with the program (or any similar program in their locality). Alas, all you mention is the money.

    You want to maintain a special place in this story. No one else can be so necessary to the program. You mention in Part I how you were Super Awesome Volunteer Girl. Even if you were terrible, they are not going to tell you so. Salvation Army needs volunteers period. The only quote refers to none other than you. And is an amazingly choice quote for all the wrong reasons.

    You did not want to play Reporter Girl because you felt like your presence was too glaring. Do you really think any of these people cared whether it was you, Dave Bing or the Dalai Lama handing them food? No, they were thankful that anyone took the time to help them out. From experience, a number of people want to tell their stories. Because then, gasp!, one might help them, and not just be out to selfishly feel good inside.

    This entire Detroit Blog is a mystery to me. When choosing topics, you seem to traffic in the misery of Detroit under a guise of "highlighting the bright spots." This is almost worse than not writing about them, because it assumes an initial position that the city had no bright spots, and that readers would be incapable of realizing this without your blog.

    We understand that most things have not been going well for us in the past decades. So does everyone else. A pity party is not solving any problems. And please do continue helping with the program. Encourage others to do so. Make the contact information for such programs available everywhere you can. Maybe then that 'other' journalist would reciprocate in terming this journalism.

  • 2

    The bed and bread club is a great ministry for the under resourced families of Detroit. Many of the children we serve at City Mission in Brightmoor meet here after school and then walk across the street to the Salvation Army truck.

    Every day at 4:30 on the dot, the Salvation Army arrives to provide a meal for our neighbors. For many this may be the only meal of the day.

    City Mission collaborates with Gleaners, Forgotten Harvest and Meijer to provide food which meet the nutritional needs for 200 families for a week.

    Additional food minisrities are available to Brightmoor families. The Brightmoor Pantry Alliance is a network of agenicies coordinated by the Brightmoor Alliance. Churches, faith based non-profits and foundations that participate in an effort to make sure every Brightmoor resident has access to basic dietary needs.

  • 3

    I didn't catch even a whiff of selfish in either installment, R.G.S. Maybe that's because I recognize these reported essays as personal posts sharing each writer's perspective on what s/he does, sees, thinks.

    If Darrell Dawsey or Steven Gray had rolled with the mobile kitchen, they'd have posted different stories from their points of view -- still highly personal, highly impressionistic.

    As for seeming "to traffic in the misery of Detroit" here, I suggest you haven't been reading. Consider these posts from just the past week:
    * 101 Best & Brightest regional workplaces (Dybis, 10/29)
    * Andrea Farhat's 'Bought in Detroit' website (Dybis, 11/2)
    * City elections (5 posts by 3 bloggers, 11/2-11/3)
    * Ice house 'sculpture' funding (Dybis, 11/3 follow-up to 10/27 post)
    * Adam Richman (Travel Channel) local segment heads-up (Dybis, 11/4)

    Try a mug of hot chocolate and defrost a bit, R.G.S.

  • 4

    RGS, I was also a bit taken aback by your post. Different bloggers have different styles. I do have to say I enjoy reading all the articles here, regardless of who wrote it, or what it was about.

    Ms Dybis was the person who went along for the ride. Her perceptions will always start with "I". My feeling is that the topic of the story is about the Salvation Army, the good works they do, and that maybe some of us should be volunteering our time. It also describes the hard situations that many Detroiters find themselves in, and an organization that helps them. Personally, the story would not have been more compelling if she had interviewed some of the people who were receiving the meals. It might have shed some light on the difficulties that resulted in the need for free food; not sure if it would have made the blog any more informative.

    There are probably 500,000 stories of personally difficult and trying times for citizens of Detroit. Many are on the front pages of the newspapers. Many have been mentioned in other blogs. Ms Dybis was only telling the story of her day in the Salvation Army Bed and Bread truck.

    As Alan said "Try a mug of hot chocolate and defrost a bit, R.G.S."

  • 5

    Wow. Talk about out of touch...What a crazy blog.

  • 7

    I hope you don't let the criticisms of a few stop you from continuing to experiment and try new things with the blog. I have enjoyed the posts you've written and saw nothing wrong with writing this from a personal perspective. We get enough cold reporting on the homeless and hungry as it is; its nice to see someone be touched personally by it.

  • 8

    1. Thank you Mr. Adams for posting the contact information.
    2. Blogs are not inherently personal. Like everything else, they come in many varieties. Nothing about "The Detroit Blog" implies this is a personal blog. Similarly, newspapers are not inherently impersonal either. They have strictly news ('just the facts') articles, columnists, op-ed and other pieces comprising the paper as a whole. But you always know which of these you are reading. The blog's title is a banner image, whereas the byline is some of the smallest type on the page. These facts are meaningful, because people imply things from them. Like the posts for TDB will not be personal, but will be shading more towards the blog's focus. Were the blog only posted to by a single author, the argument that the posts are personal might hold water, but there are multiple authors, all of which owe some duty of unity to readers. The easy solution: give each author a subsidiary personal blog. And an 'about this blog' type line would help clarify that nothing posted at this blog has any coherent theme. That would absolve you of the following.
    2. Assuming TDB is not a personal blog (all evidence points in this direction, given that it's a corporate, for-profit website), you have some journalistic duty to more clearly delineate what is personal and what is just a topical post. I have no qualms with you writing about your personal experiences, or the tone of voice. I have a problem with a blog purporting to be about Detroit writing about you in relation to Detroit.
    3. "I don't think I'm naive about Detroit's problems." Straw man. I didn't go ad hominem. And yes, Grosse Point is not Detroit. They have a very tenuous relationship.
    4. "What else do you want from a blog?! We're not going to solve any problems on this site. We are here to highlight the good and bad in the city through writing. Newspapers, blogs, magazines -- reporters don't affect the story. We just write it as we see it." This is partial expansion on #2, since you directly compare yourself to a newspaper. It's also absurdly naive to write that. You are not writing to affect the story, you are writing to affect an audience. How you write affects how the audience perceives the story, which is all that really matters. If you/your editors did not believe Detroit had some value, the Detroit Experiment and The Detroit Blog would not exist. You get to help shape that value. To me, your "little ol' me?" reasoning demonstrates the value is to TIME's bottom line. Great, you're the next in line of Detroit profiteers. If you believe the value is contributing in any way to helping revitalize the city (there are still 800,000 people, most of which can't just up and move, so revitalizing can just mean improving their lives), which I believe is what you actually think, then you should be writing to promote revitalization. You don't have to be overt about an shame everyone who doesn't volunteer, but it would be extremely satisfying to have seen more quotes from Ms. Williams about the effects of the program, and, while I hope this doesn't patronize the van's clientele, how giving up a few hours a month makes such an embarrassingly large difference for the people you utilize the van's services. And some quotes about how those people really are thankful. Lots of people still want to justify inaction by continuing to believe the recipients are ungrateful, or even worse, that some combination of laziness and unwillingness to get a job is the cause of their neediness. Blogs, or any other form of communication, can have an effect on it's audience. I want writers who actually make something of that influence. That's what I want from a blog.

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