Small steps toward big goals

I have a doctoral dissertation to write. It will come in at about 80,000 words. Knowing what a daunting target that is, my advisor suggested that I break it down, for example by aiming for 8,000 words a month. Each month articulates one point I want to make in support of my thesis. That's just one "normal size" research paper a month. No big deal - I got this.

Working from home during this pandemic, this advice is serving me well beyond the dissertation. One day, overwhelmed by all the bad news and feelings of helplessness in the face of such suffering, I spent several hours combing the internet for meaningful volunteer opportunities.

After drifting from website to website of so many wonderful groups doing so much to help those in need, however, I just felt more confused about where and how to start. So much choice, so much need.

Frustrated, I stepped away from the laptop and happened to glance at the desk where I've set out my dissertation work. But of course, I realized: I just need to break this problem down.

So, what it is I wanted to do? Right, save the world. Delusions of grandeur aside, I needed to narrow down the geographical scope just a bit. Now that I was focused locally, I could determine what kind of help is needed. Thanks to The Hinsdalean, I knew that hunger is a problem in our own community, and that HCS Family Services is working to prevent food insecurity.

After filling out a quick volunteer form on their website, I had taken the first step toward my goal. It didn't deliver an immediate result, but it was progress, and progress is good. Two days later, HCS sent me an email offering me several slots for the following week, packing food bags and restocking shelves.

I did my first two sessions this week. On Monday, I cleaned expired food out of the refrigerators and packed up 55 bags of refrigerated goods for that afternoon's drive-though pickup. These bags are given with pre-packed non-refrigerated goods, twice a week in Hinsdale and once a week in Willowbrook under new hours dictated by best-practice pandemic procedures. The other volunteer on Monday was a first-timer, too, and food pantry manager Scott Brechtel made sure we were put to good use. On Tuesday, I worked alongside a father-daughter duo who were also newbies, again under Scott's able direction. This time we packed up 85 bags of non-refrigerated goods for Wednesday's drive-through in Willowbrook.

It was extremely satisfying to hear from Scott that 79 pickups were made during this past Monday's drive-through hour. We haven't eradicated food insecurity, but we made progress. Not only did 79 households in our community get help, but the people who helped - and those we shared our stories with - understood that each of us can make a meaningful difference in real lives.

Thanks so much, HCS and all the food pantries around our state and country, for giving us the opportunity to do this work. Small steps, especially when taken by many together, will help us achieve big goals.

- Beth Smits of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected].