Adviser Teaches Nutrition and Learns Compassion

Posted: November 12, 2014

I am one of those people who love their job. I am ever so lucky to be someone who gets paid for doing a community service. I work for Penn State Extension and I am a nutrition education adviser. My job is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.

I travel throughout Allegheny County and provide information to low income audiences about nutrition, food safety, and resource management. As is the case with most community service, I meet a wide variety of people including homeless families, people with mental disabilities, ex-offenders, immigrants, and addicts in recovery.

When I visit an agency to deliver a program, I have very little information about the clients who I will be serving. I go in blind and must judge each person by first impression just as they must judge me. As time goes on, I may find out more information on the life situation of those I meet but not at first. I may see that Sally is pregnant, that Joe has trouble sitting still, or that Aletha is someone who likes to help. I honestly can say that I rarely meet anyone that I do not like or with whom I cannot find some common interest. Later, I may find to my surprise, Sally is a heroin addict who plans to give her baby up for adoption or that Joe is schizophrenic and Aletha was just released from jail for assault. By the time I have personal information about my clients, I have already talked with them, worked side by side with them and developed a helping relationship.  I know them as flesh and blood people who are interested in food, cooking, shopping, and eating.

Just like most teachers, I become engaged with my students and I am open to the emotional feelings that engagement entails. Sally and I have discussed feeding her four small children who do not want to eat fruits and vegetables and she wants to learn how she can cook better meals for them. Sympathy overwhelms me when she tells me that the child she is carrying does not have the same father as her other children. She has decided to give it up for adoption in hopes that her husband will let her come back home.  I know she is an addict and has made bad choices but she looks so sad when she speaks of her children and how long it has been since she last cooked for them. I imagine not being permitted to see my own children.

The first week of a class I meet Joe; he is talkative and tells me how much he likes to cook. He tells me about the culinary training that he has and displays a real knowledge about food safety and nutrition. He also tells me that he hopes to find a job cooking in the local hospital. The following week, Joe lays his head on the table and sleeps the entire class. The other volunteer tells me that he is off his medication and that he will most likely need to go to the psychiatric hospital again. My heart breaks for a man who has so much to offer but will not be able to keep a job because of a mental illness. I experience sympathy and spend a great deal of time thinking about Joe and other people with mental disabilities.

Aletha is one of the best volunteers I have ever had; she helps me get my equipment from the car, sets up the kitchen, helps to keep the other clients engaged during my class, and cleans up for me when class is done. We chat away on all kinds of topics. I have never had any problem with Aletha but I was warned by the director of the program that Aletha has anger issues and that she has a wicked temper. She has assaulted people before and been jailed for it. She lives at the half way house while she is on probation. She has told me that she was raised in foster care and that is where she learned to cook and to enjoy a variety of different types of food. She tells me that she is bisexual and that people do not treat her right. She states that the people at the half way house mistreat her and that she is on her guard. She is not going to let anyone take her stuff or disrespect her anymore. It becomes obvious that she has some paranoid tendencies and that she has never really had a home or a family.She probably never will. I feel so lucky because I have both.

Does my service in the community heighten my sympathy for people who are different and have difficulties?  Oh, yes! I cannot talk about entitlement, welfare recipients, drug addicts, and mental health patients without thinking of these people and the conditions of their lives.  They are not their issues; they are people just trying to make a life worth living in a world that is less than sympathetic sometimes.  I may provide them with information about healthy nutrition but they provide me with information about what it means to be human. I feed their bodies and they feed my soul.

Contact Information

Cynthia Marie Stevans
  • Nutrition Education Adviser,Food Families and Health
Phone: 412-482-3461