What do sandwiches and baked spuds have in commonâ€”other than the fact that they are both comfort food? In Vancouver, the common thread is that both types of food have become a way of reaching out and making a small (or large) difference in the lives of individuals who live in the downtown east side of Vancouver; a neighbourhood characterized by significant levels of poverty and its associated social challenges. In this case, there is an added dimension of comfort that goes along with the food: having oneâ€™s humanity acknowledged and honoured. Being on the receiving end of a random act of kindness and generosity is probably the best soul food aroundâ€”and it often inspires more random acts of kindness and acknowledgement that are â€śpaid forward.â€ť
Compassion in Action
Driven by their compassion for individuals who are often overlooked, ignored, or dismissed, and concerned by the fact that there are people in Vancouver who are going hungry, Kim McMullen the Chief Creative Renegade of Flipside Creative (a Vancouver-based marketing and design studio run by heart-centred people) and Jeffrey Armstrong (a Vancouver-based philosophy of yoga teacher and founder of VASA, the Vedic Academy of Science and Arts) each decided to do something about it. Jeffrey Armstrong hit upon the idea of starting aÂ SPUD Patrol (serving baked potatoes to homeless individuals) more than 15 years ago while he lived in the South Bay area of San Francisco.
When Jeffrey moved to Vancouver, he saw a need for a SPUD Patrol here, too, and soon enough, the residents of the downtown east side were lining up once a month to get a baked potato. (SPUD Patrol has since branched out to other cities in North America.) Once a month on a Saturday closest to the full moon, Jeffrey, his partner Sandi, and their students and friends would bring foil-wrapped baked potatoes, along with the fixings (butter, sour cream, shredded cheese, chives, salt and pepper) and several tables for their â€śproduction lineâ€ť to the downtown east side. They would set up the tables and then serve baked potatoes (with a side of smiles) until the SPUD supply ran out. I often volunteered with SPUD Patrol, and I heard many individuals ask which organization we were with and many surprised and appreciative â€śWow, you guys are awesome!â€ť when weâ€™d reply that we were just a group of people who cared. I heard the same kind of responses this year when I was invited to help out with Flipside Creativeâ€™s Great Sandwich Make.
I first heard about the Great Sandwich Make from a member of the Flipside team, Jon, whom Iâ€™d met at a conscious business networking event earlier this year. Kim McMullen was inspired about six years ago to put her compassion into action through the Great Sandwich Make. The first year, it was a solo project. Since then, it has grown into an annual event. Better yet, the number of sandwiches and kits distributed to people in the downtown east side of Vancouver has increased every year, thanks to a growing community of friends, clients and colleagues who support the event and keep it going through volunteering their time and/or donating food, cash, and space to make the sandwiches and assemble the care packages. (A care package contains a sandwich, fruit, juice, other tasty goodies, toiletries, and a hand written â€śYou Matterâ€ť card or sticker.) Last year (2012), Kim and the rest of the Flipside team along with 25 kind-hearted and eager volunteers put together and then handed out 499 kits with sandwiches (plus another 60 sandwiches sans care packages).
This year, a team of 30-40 enthusiastic and compassionate volunteers gathered together on the evening of March 2nd to make sandwiches, put together the rest of the care packages and write hand written â€śYou Matterâ€ť cards. The goal was to make 600 sandwiches and kits, but the team outdid itself and made 854 sandwiches and kits in just over four hours. Now thatâ€™s an example of awesome team work and amazing generosity! The next day, March 3rd, dawned sunny and clear, and about a dozen volunteers gathered at the corner of Main Street and Hastings Street to start handing out sandwich kits. We ran out of the kits in about an hour!
Small Steps, Subtle but Lasting Impact
Gathering together a community of like-minded, kind-hearted individuals to make and then hand out sandwiches (or baked potatoes) may seem like a â€śsmall stepâ€ť when it comes to solving the chronic social challenges and inequalities that contribute to hunger and homelessness. Yet it can also be a catalyst for big changes. According to recent studies, not only is it the case thatÂ kind acts help to improve the mental health of both the doers and recipients of kindness (Check out this study by the Canadian Mental Health Association.), it’s also the case that random acts of kindness are contagiousâ€”in a good wayâ€”and they have lasting effects. (Check out this study done at UC San Diego.)
There are a couple of other ways that the Great Sandwich Make and the folks at Flipside Creative are serving as social change agents. First, the activity inspires a sense of community engagement among the team of volunteers. Second, it encourages volunteers to look past the misconceptions or stereotypes about people who may be living with challenging conditions in dire social or economic circumstances, and instead see the humanity and individualism beneath the surface. We’re all human, we all like to be recognized and acknowledged, and we all relate to empathy and kindness. When we â€śgetâ€ť that at a deep level, we become more empathetic, more compassionate, and more inclined to start questioning social injustices.
Itâ€™s your turn. What random (or organized) acts of kindness have you organized or participated in, either as an individual or as a socially responsible business? What inspired you to organize/participate in the event? What small steps could you take to contribute to big changes in the world?
P.S. If you need some inspiration and ideas, I highly recommend checking out sites such as DailyGood or HelpOthers.org. If youâ€™re curious about how other microbusinesses have found ways to give back to their communities, check out Small Business, Big Change: A Microentrepreneurâ€™s Guide to Social Responsibility at http://www.smallbusinessbigchange.com/.
 SPUD not only refers to the slang term for potatoes but also serves as an acronym: Serving Potatoes to Unrecognized Devas. â€śDevaâ€ť is a Sanskrit term for divine being.