Serving College Student Meals During a Worldwide Pandemic

July 22, 2020

Carina Wilson

The first time I served meals for Grinnell College Students was on a dreary Saturday morning in April. My colleagues from the College’s Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS) and I delivered over 240 meals on that deserted and lonely campus. In my experience of uncertainty and change while navigating Grinnell, I was mesmerized by the new realities of an unknown world.

The threat of cataclysm has recently become a reality worldwide. Although the pandemic may be a good reminder of just how easily life can become a calamity, such upheaval has not been new for certain people for centuries. Homelessness, poverty, unhealthy living environments, housing insecurity, and trauma have been around for ages, affecting some communities more than others. Being from one of those communities, my lived experience and expertise of, for example, moving houses unexpectedly, acclimating to difficult living environments, and fighting through harsh realities of instability has shaped my understanding of service.

I grew up in transitional housing within a faith-based community. Community and service have always been tied to who I am and have shaped the choices I’ve made. While aspects of who I am have changed, these two core values have remained the same. I chose to apply for the AmeriCorps position with the service and social innovation team at Grinnell because its mission and values, emphasizing diversity and inclusion, community-driven collaboration, and sustainability, aligned with my own — values that are now at the forefront of worldwide community engagement.

After graduating from Grinnell College in May 2019 as a first-generation, low-income student and QuestBridge scholar, I returned to campus four months later to accept the AmeriCorps position that seemed tailored to my values. Since then, my responsibilities have entailed engaging and sustaining Grinnell College students in off-campus service, building capacity for intergenerational engagement, and creating programming and trainings that support our students in their desire to serve. That is, until March 2020, when COVID-19 threatened to come to campus, and the College sent as many students home as it could. When Rachel Bly ’93, director of conference operations and events, asked if I could help coordinate meal deliveries to the students remaining on campus, I stepped up to be the kind of pioneer the Grinnell College community often talks about.

From mid-April to mid-May 2020, I volunteered to greet and provide direction to several teams across campus, ensuring that students received food and members of our community remained connected. As an alum, it was an eye-opening experience to contribute to a community that had invested four years into my life. Wearing gloves and a mask, I served and reconnected with alumni, professors, and staff in a community I loved. From being mistaken as a student on days I wore my Grinnell volleyball sweater to reconnecting, as an alum, with past professors, the interactions and engagement I experienced were sincere and, in contrast to the chaos of the pandemic, serene.

In the four weeks we delivered meals, I often found myself at the center of two worlds professionally and personally. While I critically analyzed the way my position, privileges, and identities impacted how others may have received my acts of service, I also experienced difficult memories of times I had received service throughout my life. I wondered how the current students at Grinnell were doing in a time of intense isolation. As I have navigated many spaces throughout my lifetime, the idea of representation — who has represented me and whether my voice was heard — has always influenced the ways I serve others. As campuses and people engage students during this time across the world, we all must consider whom we represent when we serve, whom we cannot represent, and whom we must make space for.

The choices we make today have a tremendous impact on those around us, and there will always be consequences as a result. While this realization can be frightening, it is also enlightening because it challenges us to work toward the betterment of all people, not just ourselves. We must be willing to shift and shape our world to reflect this value.

When I applied for AmeriCorps, I never imagined coordinating volunteers to serve meals during a pandemic. While my style of work has changed drastically, I have adapted my service within a community that has continuously supported me. Regardless of how the world around me changes, the roles I maintain will always influence my approach to service. I am not just an AmeriCorps member who served Saturday meals during a pandemic. I was and still am a peer, a graduate, a parent, and a fellow human.

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