It All Starts with a Meal: Mathematica and Miriam’s Kitchen
On my commute, I walk several blocks from Union Station to Mathematica’s Washington, DC, office, passing homeless people who live on the sidewalk beneath an overpass. Some remain there even on the coldest days of winter, and some clearly suffer from mental illness. Sadly, I’ve seen many of the same people under the same overpass for years now.
Some 22 years ago when I started work at Mathematica, I joined some of my new colleagues helping to prepare and serve meals at a DC soup kitchen called Miriam’s Kitchen, or MK for short. Mathematica’s DC office has been sending volunteers to MK monthly since the 1980s. Today, I coordinate volunteers who help out with two meals each month.
MK is far more than a soup kitchen; it’s a social services organization dedicated to ending chronic homelessness by means of a “housing first” strategy. Housing first emphasizes placing chronically homeless people into permanent supportive housing without preconditions such as sobriety, treatment, or service participation. It provides the safe, stable setting that facilitates getting the help they need most.
Over time, MK expanded to include an outreach team that interacts with and helps those on the streets. Those coming in for MK’s healthy meals can talk with social workers who get to know them and provide or facilitate a broad range of services from haircuts to health care to public assistance. Guests are invited to participate in a number of therapeutic arts activities such as painting and poetry. Permanent supportive housing is expensive, so MK teams up other social services groups in the city to advocate for greater public funding for housing. MK also helps prepare guests to take up residence in their own homes and continues to support them after they have been housed. Last year, MK placed 150 people in housing. But as they say at MK: it all starts with a meal.
Last year, I received an email from MK’s volunteer coordinator asking if I would set up a meeting with our volunteers to see what Mathematica’s “secret sauce” was. Although MK has dozens of corporate partners who similarly send volunteers to help out with meals, the kitchen managers know that when Mathematica volunteers are scheduled, we show up, the work gets done, and things go smoothly.
At the meeting, we learned that other groups are less reliable in sending volunteers and that their volunteers too often use MK shifts as an opportunity to socialize with work colleagues. We were surprised to hear that we distinguished ourselves from other groups. And as researchers, we too were intrigued by why that was the case. True, we researchers might be a bit more introverted than others—and less apt to socialize—but the consensus was that it had much more to do with why we choose to work at Mathematica in the first place. We were attracted to Mathematica’s mission of improving social well-being and its reputation for high quality work. Those values influence how we approach our work in and out of the office.
Though not a big factor in why I (and, I think, my colleagues) volunteer at MK, the company supports employees who volunteer their time outside of the office. Mathematica gives donations to the charities its workers partner with in the various cities where we have offices, with the size of donations pegged mostly to the number of hours we employees spend volunteering.
As I think about my own experiences, our volunteer work at Mathematica, and the importance of recognizing and celebrating the impact of volunteer service during National Volunteer Week, I’m reminded of that meeting about Mathematica’s secret sauce. The truth is that there is no secret sauce that makes Mathematica volunteers special. It’s just who we are and the values we hold.