Lena Jakobi started volunteering at a food pantry in March in Germany. Her parents didn't tell her she had to and it wasn't a requirement at her school. She just felt that she wanted to do something to help people.
She heard about the pantry, or "tafel," and would have liked to donate money or food but didn't have the resources to do so.
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"I don't go to work so I can't give donations very well, so I decided to work there as a 'donation,'" Jakobi said.
After a few months, the tafel closed for the summer and with a break before her university classes resumed, Jakobi decided to come to the United States and see how similar organizations work here.
Her mother's friend knew Pastor Jonathan Wilson, who leads Bible study at the Elgin Wayside Center. The center provides a range of services for homeless individuals, including access to donated clothes, food, computers and exercise equipment as well as washing machines, showers and Bible study.
The Wayside Center focuses on providing holistic services for all aspects of an individual's life. The goal is for people to have access to all of these resources to help themselves and improve their lives with dignity intact.
Jakobi is Catholic and lives just a few blocks from her church in Homberg, Germany. Combining service with a ministry was an easy jump for the 19-year-old, even though Homberger Tafel functions without any connection to a church. Jakobi thinks the Bible study component of Wayside's services is important for creating a closer community.
"I think Bible study, it connects people," Jakobi said.
Jakobi arrived in Elgin Aug. 11 and will stay until Sept. 7, working at Wayside Monday through Friday for the duration of her trip.
She has helped serve breakfast and lunch each day, input data into the Wayside computer system and sort clothes. She has also participated in the women's and group Bible study sessions.
Homberger Tafel opens to give out food just once each day -- it does not provide daylong services like Wayside, and the food is not served as a meal. Individuals are given food they can cook at home. But sometimes donations are not enough to meet the need at the tafel. Then Jakobi has to say no, or say she can only give smaller amounts of food.
"That's what I like here (at Wayside)," Jakobi said. "You don't have to say no. You prepare breakfast and lunch and you can give as much as you want because there's always enough.
"I don't really like to say no."
Jakobi has been amazed by the amount of donations and their variety in her last few weeks at Wayside. The center serves far fewer people than the tafel in Germany, but in more ways. Whereas Jakobi estimates about 200 people show up each day at the Homberger Tafel for food, she guesses closer to 30 benefit from Wayside's breakfasts and lunches on a daily basis.
German stores donate products that are expired but still edible to the tafel. Jakobi calls her fellow volunteers "saviors" of food that would otherwise be thrown away. She just regrets that they can't always find enough to feed everyone who needs it.
She also laments there aren't more people willing to volunteer, especially young people. She is by far the youngest to donate her time to the tafel in Germany and the only one in her family who volunteers. She said she doesn't know anyone her age who does volunteer work in Germany and can't figure out why.
That reality just makes Jakobi all the more committed to do what she can.
"I want to be there for people, helping people," Jakobi said. "At Homberger Tafel you can really help them, and here too. I think it's really important."