What I Learned While Leading a Hot Meal Program for Those in Need
By: Randy Wolken, President & CEO

Recently our team volunteered at the Samaritan Center, a community-based hot meal program for those most in need in Syracuse.  We served over 230 individuals – men, women, and children.  They were of all ages and races.  It was humbling to be there to help in even a small way – and it always has been.  Many who know me don’t know that I was the Executive Director of the Samaritan Center nearly 20 years ago.  My closest friends know that it changed my life – and the way I see leadership.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a leader and help others.  When I had a chance to serve my country and learn at West Point, one of the finest leadership schools in the world, I jumped at the chance.  I learned a lot.  But, it was at the Samaritan Center where I learned that you only get to lead if there are those who want to follow.  A leader without followers is just a person on a walk all alone.  Trust me – that is not a good feeling.

When I arrived at the Samaritan Center I was one of two full-time staff members.  We had hundreds of volunteers and an important mission – provide a hot meal daily to those who have no where else to go.  At first, it was so difficult for me.  I am the person who just wants to fix what is wrong.  I kept asking myself – “How do I end the need for them to keep coming here each day?”

At times, I am a slow learner.  I learned after three months that I could not fix their immediate condition, but I could provide the best experience possible with the resources we had.  And, that is what we did.  We built an organization and program to treat our “guests” – that is what we so aptly called them – to a meal with dignity.  In the quest, the most important offering was the smiles of our volunteers to our guests.  Human dignity and respect is for everyone – especially those in need.

In three and a half years, the volunteers, Board of Directors, myself, and a newly hired staff transformed the Samaritan Center.  We even created an endowment which we called our Forever Fund so our work would never end.  Twenty years later the Samaritan Center is in a beautiful new home led by incredible leaders and supported by hundreds of volunteers.

What did I learn as a leader?  If you have a mission that serves others and you are humble enough to learn from and care for those around you, you can create unimaginable outcomes. And, one more thing – a smile can help heal even those with the most wounded hearts.

Looking for more? Download my Amazon Bestseller, Present-Future Leader:  How to Thrive in Today’s Economy.