They say the key to making a difference is finding what you’re good at and doing that. Eileen Suffian is the poster child for this idea. A sometime caterer, she now devotes her time to volunteering at the Edlavitch DCJCC. Since 2004 (though possibly even earlier), Suffian has been the volunteer lead on Hunger Action—one of the EDCJCC’s volunteer programs offered by the Morris Cafritz Center for Community Service. Her no-nonsense philosophy is, “You have to give back. Everyone can contribute—we must do what we can.”

Even though I arrive early for my shift, the kitchen is already buzzing with activity with Suffian at the helm. Half a dozen or so volunteers are busily peeling, chopping and washing up. I quickly grab a hairnet and apron, wash my hands and file in among the others.

Eileen Suffian, the volunteer lead on the EDCJCC’s Hunger Action program, since 2004 (or earlier!)

Soon there are nearly 20 of us around four tables making quick work of apples, peppers, lettuce and other fresh produce. It’s a warm, boisterous atmosphere. As we’re preparing broccoli slaw, volunteers start singing “Broccoliiiiiii” to the tune of “Barbara Ann” as well as “Broccoli was his name-o.” This probably isn’t typical, but I fully believe these nights are always joyful.

I am impressed by the number of novice cooks who have signed up to prepare meals. One young woman calls out to Suffian, asking how big to chop a carrot, and Suffian reassuringly responds, “I’m easy. However you do it is great!” Weeks later when Suffian and I meet for coffee to talk about her involvement with Hunger Action, she tells me all levels of cooks are encouraged to get involved and that the best groups are simply the ones that are task oriented. She’s happy to see people embrace knife skills and leave more confident than when they arrived, empowering them to cook at home. Suffian explains, “At least I know I’m contributing, and so are the others. It’s like planting seeds. One person can only do so much.”

On average, together Hunger Action participants make about 18 trays of food each time, and Hunger Action takes place about ten months out of the year. With each tray holding 25 servings of food, the program produces between 4,000 and 4,500 servings of food, which are distributed to over 88 social service agencies by DC Central Kitchen. Hunger Action also makes approximately 3,000 individual healthy snack bags every year, which go to after-school programs in the District.

Even more than the quantity, I was incredibly impressed by the quality of the meals we prepared. With Suffian’s guidance, the emphasis is on fresh, healthy food. As she is quick to point out, this is something people experiencing homelessness might not otherwise get. This particular evening, we made a total of 17 trays of broccoli slaw, tossed salads, carrot salad, bean salad and a low-sugar apple crisp with a granola topping. It’s an easy formula to follow. “I make this at home. It really is good! We don’t serve anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves.”

She describes each session of Hunger Action as “Iron Chef cooks for the homeless,” since she doesn’t know in advance what produce or other foods will be available at the food bank that day or even how many volunteers might show up on a given night.

Yet each time, she leaves feeling energized and hopes the other volunteers also leave better than they came knowing they’ve done good. Suffian is empowered knowing, “This is something I can do and do well.” I, too, can honestly say I am better for having volunteered with Suffian, and her example is one we would all do well to emulate in our lives.

To volunteer for an upcoming Hunger Action event or another EDCJCC program, visit http://edcjcc.org/volunteer/. To schedule a group volunteer session, please email Sonya Weisburd at SonyaW@edcjcc.org.