On a Journey to Discover Justice
Riverwest Mission Interns share insights gained during their year of service
“The first time I saw inequality in Milwaukee was on an outing to deliver toys to a family.”
Maria Schuller’s experiences this year as a Riverwest Food Pantry Mission Intern provide her with a unique vantage point to witness the lives of her neighbors.
“We walked into her house and the first floor looked fairly normal, it had furniture and stuff. But when we went upstairs to go look at the kids’ rooms, there wasn’t even a bed. There were clothes all over the floor because there were no dressers for the clothes to be in. There was only a futon. She said she was sharing that with her kids because they didn’t have anything else.”
Unfortunately, this scene is not uncommon for many residents within the city of Milwaukee. Currently the poverty rate in Milwaukee is 28.4% which is more than double the state percentage of 11.8%. This means that out of every four people in Milwaukee, one of them is guaranteed to be living in poverty.
“It hit me that there are people not that far from us who don’t have stability in their life… wow this is their reality. People don’t have homes. People don’t have belongings. It’s a reality here.”
The Riverwest Food Pantry Mission Internship program is in its fifth year and is currently accepting applications for next year’s class. For Executive Director Vincent Noth, the interns’ contribution is unquantifiable. “Our Mission Interns provide so much life to this community! Their choice to volunteer long hours of service without pay embodies what we mean by a community of generosity. The interns create shopping, cooking, and garden spaces where all who come through our doors discover a community where everyone belongs, and everyone thrives.”
“There’s something about being in the community with people and helping build it up from within – instead of effecting it from the outside.” Matthew Van Hecke, another Mission Intern, finds that living next door to the people he serves with helps forward the mission of the pantry. “You understand better what’s going on here. You know the people, you know what it’s like to live in the neighborhood. You have a better idea of what it needs.”
In addition to living in proximity with the shoppers, the interns run pantry operations, coordinate volunteers, regularly help families struggling with eviction and homelessness and learn how to manage a nonprofit. For Maria, she sees this as an opportunity to forward the food pantry’s vision for change in Milwaukee. “We want to really invite others into our mission…to invite them to volunteer and invite them to see poverty in our city. Not just know about it or hear about it, but to actually see it and feel empowered to do something about it.”
The internship at the food pantry not only benefits the community it serves, but also gives young adults an opportunity to grow and be challenged about the realities present in Milwaukee. Matthew credits his experiences at the food pantry as an awakening to the still real presence of injustice in our city. “Without the internship, I wouldn’t have learned that racism is still a problem, it’s not just a thing of the past.”
Due to Milwaukee’s segregated history, the poverty rate of minorities increases dramatically when broken down by demographics, with 39.9% of African Americans and 31.8% of Hispanics living in poverty. The effects of inequality and segregation are everywhere. Many shoppers that come into the pantry are also affected by housing instability, underemployment, disabilities, drug abuse, and other circumstances.
“A lot of our shoppers and volunteers have suffered a lot,” says Hannah Rappavi, another Mission Intern serving this year. “How disempowering it can be to be rejected because of something that has happened to you.”
In her job coordinating volunteers and welcoming shoppers on Friday and Saturday morning, Hannah hopes to soothe this rejection and discouragement. She says that amidst all the problems present in Milwaukee, the Riverwest Food Pantry has become a place of refuge and restoration.
“The pantry is able to restore some of that dignity and sense of purpose. We step back and watch our shoppers and volunteers really give of themselves and discover that they have something to give, that they’re all needed. And I think that is the first step to restoring justice.”
Know someone who is interested in serving others? Please contact Sam Vosters at email@example.com.
Also, follow our interns’ journeys on Instagram at rwfp.mission.life