Chaos to Creativity

Chaos to Creativity

Excerpt from Jan 7th, White House weekly address, President Obama’s note – “When ordinary people get involved, get engaged and come together in collective effort, things change for the better. That’s the belief at the heart of the precious American experiment in self-government. This is what gives work and purpose to each new generation.”

It was a coincidence that I had witnessed a community service event today, living up to the above statement, at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. The Food Bank’s vision is ‘No one should go hungry in Los Angeles.’ They have about 625 agencies that serve the local communities with more than 300,000 clients served monthly through the agency network and Food Bank programs, providing food for hungry children, hardworking families, struggling seniors and more. They encourage individual and group volunteer campaigns, and the organization am associated with, had signed up few volunteers for a group event to help inspect, sort, and repackage donated food items from local food drives.

The event started at 8.30 AM and despite the rainy morning, there was a considerable crowd, people of different ages. Check-ins were done at the main building and we were requested to walk over to the adjacent building, where the volunteering work was meant to happen. I felt like I was walking into a Costco store, the typical high rise shelves were packed with huge cartons of food items!!

Above all, I was intrigued at what motivates people to volunteer for community service, these teenage kids could have had a lazy weekend watching TV, the couples could have had more time for their chores, and the friends could have just been out for brunch. But they were all here, excited to help. Gloves worn, the floor was abuzz with activity!

There were different activities assigned to each volunteer group, and my group was assigned to the rescue food section. We were instructed to sort the food coming by the conveyor belt by pasta, rice, water, flavored beverages, juice, sports drinks, snacks, candy, baking, cereal, condiments, canned meat, canned veggies, and canned fruit, and repackage them.

The human traffic jam that we were creating in the middle of the narrow aisle was indeed chaotic. Nevertheless, we were having fun, confused about categorizing pasta sauce to the pasta carton or to the condiments one, whether breakfast bars belong to cereal or snacks, etc. The manager in me though was dying a slow death. All I needed was 15 mins to organize things, to assign people, specific spots to stand and specific food items to collect, the human chain to transfer items from belt to the carton. And voila, a process in place!

But it was not to be, we weren’t a team, we were a group of strangers with no time for introductions.

And I wasn’t one to impose rules upon strangers. So while being busy amidst the chaos, I observed how the rest of the folks were handling it.

And I was in for this pleasant surprise!

  • They recognized patterns – water and snacks were the prominent items on the belt, so they rearranged the packaging space for 2 additional cartons.
  • There were time sensitive – rather than wait for food items to come by the slow moving belt, they let the belt run for a longer period of time, allowing food to pile up more, so we could quickly sort them.
  • They chose their own responsibility – folks capable of lifting heavy weights focused on transferring water and juice cartons, while few others just parked themselves near the cartons to gather specific food items from the rest of the folks, rather than add to the to and fro traffic.
  • They identified limitations – we apparently had to trash food packets that we had dropped by accident. Needless to say, we were there to help, not to waste. So people started becoming conscious of how much they carried, it wasn’t only fun anymore.
  • They became ingenious – they carried the cartons to the belt as soon as they noticed increased count of specific food items, rather than waiting for folks to transfer them from the belt to the cartons.

We had become resourceful and efficient within our own means. In 3 hours’ time, we had managed to sort out 48,515 pounds of food which the food bank quantifies as 40,267 meals! Whoa!!!

By the end of it all, we were still strangers who haven’t made introductions yet, but we sure were a team. And a happy one at that!

And I left with a note to self, chaos is imperative at certain times, it gives us a chance to unlearn, and learn again with a new perspective.

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