“This Is My Happy Place”: How Volunteers Bring Our Mission to Life

Since last spring, nearly eight thousand people have volunteered with Community Servings, representing 70,972 hours preparing scratch-made meals, packaging those meals, and delivering them to critically and chronically ill clients throughout New England. Eighty percent of those hours — 57,028 of them — are the service of individual volunteers. These are people who volunteer on their own initiative. They volunteer committedly, often several days a week. They arrange their lives so they can be here. They identify with, and they exemplify, our mission.

57,028 hours. It’s worth considering the value of that figure, and the value beyond it. If you multiply it by a $15 hourly wage, you get $855,420 — a radical underestimation. Many of these volunteers have extensive professional qualifications and come from successful careers as engineers, chefs, and marketers. Then there’s the fact that these volunteers often support Community Servings financially, represent us at fundraising events, and spread the word about Community Servings among the people they know. These extra efforts aren’t formally counted through our volunteer program. But their worth to the agency can’t be overstated.

What volunteers give Community Servings is extraordinary, supporting the agency in numerous ways every single day. Chief Operations Officer Kevin Conner puts it plainly: “It’s impossible to do what we do without the volunteers.” Before Kevin was COO, he was Kitchen Manager and then Executive Chef. He saw, for years and first-hand, what supporting Community Servings’ looks like for our most dedicated volunteers. Over time, these volunteers begin to prepare their work themselves without instruction. They work with complete independence. They own what they do. “It’s a huge help and value-add,” Kevin says, quickly adding, “You’re not going to find another place where you have that.” You’re not going to find another production kitchen where volunteers gladly, capably, and independently run major parts of production.

 “The Important Thing Is They Want to Be Here.”

Greg Yannekis

Greg Yannekis started volunteering after a career in supply chain management.

That’s what volunteering looks like for Greg Yannekis. Greg first volunteered in April 2020, shortly after retiring from a career in supply chain management. Today, with the light-hearted sarcasm of a long-time New Englander, Greg says he’s just trying to save his soul after decades in corporate America.

The volunteers who make a regular commitment “tend to gravitate to a room,” to an area in the kitchen that suits them. Greg’s preferred room is the Volunteer Prep Kitchen, the space where medically tailored entrees are portioned and heat-sealed. In this space Greg isn’t merely a volunteer but a leader. This is not uncommon at Community Servings. About Greg, Packaging Kitchen Manager Nick Bruning offers these observations: “You can always count on him. . . . I can train anyone to do anything as long as they want to be here. The important thing is they want to be here.” Once trained, long-term volunteers have the trust and respect not just to hold their own but even to make improvements. Greg’s mark on the kitchen, for example, is a highly visible one, though he’s reluctant to take the credit. Laminated signs throughout the room supply the less experienced volunteers with the basic information they need to do their work: Where are the trays, gloves, and electric scales? Which of the trays contain chicken, turkey, and vegetarian entrees? Greg created the signage system to guide volunteers that have never worked in a professional kitchen before, and to spare full-time staff from having to answer such questions themselves.

The contribution was welcome. Nick is “all about letting people run with their expertise.”

“I’m in Charge of the Garden.”

Shops Howard, another long-term volunteer, enjoys that kind of trust, too. Shops started volunteering in April 2020, after COVID-19 put her catering business on hold. Shops has kept coming because of the people and because, in her words, “This is my happy place.” On Friday mornings, Production Manager Denise Fenoglio prepares big projects specifically with Shops in mind. “Denise just knows that if I do something, it’ll get done and it’ll get done right,” Shops says. “We work well together,” Denise says of Shops, smiling warmly as she says it.


Shops Howard is in charge of Community Servings’ garden.

A few years back, when Chief Culinary Officer Brian Hillmer shared with Denise that he needed someone new to run the on-site garden, Denise replied right away: “I bet Shops and I can take care of it for you.”

When Community Servings meets volunteers who have both dedication and highly specialized skills, we look for ways to offer them a richer, more rewarding experience, and to benefit from volunteers’ expertise, too. “It’s a priority for us to matchmake,” Brian says, “to find ways to make the work more gratifying for them.” Now, every spring and summer, Shops plans and manages the garden, which supports our Teaching Kitchen job-training program and staff meals. She rotates the crops, outmaneuvers blight, and makes sure the soil doesn’t become sterile. The theme for this year is ratatouille; she’ll be planting squash, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, basil, and jalapeno and habanada peppers. “When I figure out how to make the system work better, I do it,” Shops says about her work with Community Servings. “I feel like I can do that here because I’m trusted and valued.”

Those words describe Community Servings for William McDermott, as well. When he retired in 2019, William intended to give back to his community somehow. William had known of and supported Community Servings for years. Now, two days a week, William can be found, masked and gloved, in an out-of-the-way corner of the Packaging Kitchen. To the soundtrack of “really loud, good music,” he stands at an 8-foot steel table and ladles soup into containers for two hours. “If I weren’t having a good time, I wouldn’t be coming,” he says.


“If I weren’t having a good time, I wouldn’t be coming,” says regular volunteer William McDermott.

William secures the plastic container lids deftly and quickly, first rotating the container 180 degrees and then pressing out the excess air before snapping the lid shut all the way. During a two-hour period, William will do this, on estimate, 200 to 300 times. “I’m the soup guy,” he says with a smile. “Ladle, lid, stack. I don’t need any direction.” William knows what needs to happen throughout the room, too. When corporate groups are packing meal bags nearby and unclear what needs to happen next, William provides direction. “Having people like William, who can basically run a whole section, is invaluable,” says Nick.

“How Amazing This Place Is Arrives by Layers”

The camaraderie between volunteers and staff is palpable and unanimous. During the busy morning of Nick’s interview, when his many tasks include servicing a malfunctioning Speedseal packaging machine, Nick still pauses to offer thoughts on Greg and William with a thoughtful patience and an abundance of affection: “They’re great. Both of these guys are fun to have around.” For William, the feelings are mutual: “There’s no one in the kitchen I don’t like working with. There’s a great sense of appreciation. They know about our lives, and we get to know about theirs.”

In addition to camaraderie, there’s also a shared connection to our mission. In William’s words, our volunteers are the kind of people who, more than anything else, “want to give back.”

Lakshmi Kailasam calls herself “a lifelong volunteer.” A passion about food, and food security, motivated Lakshmi to spend 15 years volunteering with other food programs before she first arrived here. “Especially here [in the U.S.] with all the money,” Lakshmi shares, “going hungry doesn’t make sense to me . . . I’m doing my part. I’m doing what I can.”


Lakshmi Kailasam says she’s “a lifelong volunteer – and I love it!”

It was at Friday Night Supper at Arlington Street Church, in fact, when someone first suggested Lakshmi check out Community Servings. (That someone was the spouse of one of our delivery drivers.) She started volunteering here once a week in 2019. But during the pandemic that schedule grew. Now, Monday through Thursday, Lakshmi arrives in the early mornings to prepare meals for clients. On Fridays, she prepares our staff meals. “I hope to reach 5,000 hours before I turn 80,” Lakshmi says. And it’s a labor of love. When asked who she enjoys working with here, Lakshmi’s answer is emphatic: “Everybody! They’re my friends. Everybody is so fun to work with.”

The service mindset is a core part of Community Servings’ identity. Without our volunteers’ dedication, that identity would be incomplete. Our formal mission statement, in fact, only mentions meals after mentioning how the meals come to be: “Community Servings actively engages the community to provide medically tailored, nutritious, scratch-made meals to chronically and critically ill individuals and their families.” The language is purposeful; we need our community in order to serve the community.

Having realized over time how “amazing” Community Servings is, Greg now describes it as a place that fulfills him, a place that warms his heart. He intends to reach 1,000 volunteer hours soon and keep coming. “The mission is outstanding. The culture is outstanding. The quest of diet-specific meals is fascinating. . . . I dare you to come once and not want to come again.”

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