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Filipina Social Worker - 2003-08-07

English Feature # 7-37711 Broadcast August 4, 2003

A two-story yellow brick building on a busy street in downtown Washington, D.C. bears the intriguing sign "Martha's Table". Inside are the colorful, busy offices, kitchens and classrooms of a non-profit organization dedicated to feeding and educating low-income or homeless Washington residents. In this edition of New American Voices, a Filipino-American social worker who supervises the many volunteers that staff Martha’s Table, talks about her work, and about her view of Americans.

Juliette Orzal, a petite, dark-haired woman with a ready laugh, has to make sure that 50 to 70 volunteers are on hand every day to carry out the various services provided by Martha’s Table.

“The most satisfaction is knowing, meeting, working with people who really care for other people. When I have volunteers who come here because they want to help, and they feel that working here or being a volunteer makes their life different and meaningful, that makes it meaningful for me, too.”

Volunteers are needed to prepare the two hundred fifty liters of soup and the three thousand sandwiches that Martha’s Table distributes daily to the homeless and the needy from its food van, which travels to designated stops around downtown Washington. But Ms Orzal says this is only the most visible part of the work that the volunteers at Martha’s Table perform.

“Alongside the feeding we have always had services for children. We provide after school programs, computer literacy, also nutritious meals for them. We have the early childhood development center, which provides daycare services largely for families who are on welfare, because those families cannot find jobs or go to work if there’s no one to take care of their kids.”

Volunteers also sort donated clothing, run summer programs for children and teens, provide tutoring, operate a laundry and showers. Some of the volunteers Ms Orzal administers are regulars – local people, students, housewives, retirees. Many others, however, come from far and wide to help out with the work of Martha’s Table while on a visit to Washington.

“A lot of them now are coming from different states, you know, church groups coming to the city maybe to sight-see, but they find the time to serve. We have a lot of groups like that. Also internationally, I have groups from Japan, last weekend I had a group from Korea, the German Marshall Fund coming from Europe, and they see to it that they come to Martha’s Table, because we have become a model in terms of the use of volunteers."

Volunteerism has been Juliette Orzal’s profession for over 20 years. She came to the United States in 1982 to continue graduate studies in the field of social work.

“I decided to take my masters’ in volunteer service administration, which was a new thing. I felt it’s needed to professionalize this service, because there’s always a tendency to say, ‘I’m just a volunteer,’ and to me, volunteerism is very important –it’s a profession, you do it professionally.”

While in Washington writing her masters’ thesis, Juliette Orzol found a job as a part-time volunteer coordinator for the newly-founded Martha’s Table. She says this gave her a perfect opportunity to put into practice what she had been studying. Eventually she received her Master’s degree, and was about to return home to the Philippines, as all foreign students have to do. However, the founder and director of Martha’s Table found that there was nobody to take her place.

“I tried to prepare someone, but unfortunately this place then was not really a very attractive place. It was where drug trafficking was, the area was not really a welcoming place, undeveloped, so many of those young graduates would come, and they wouldn’t stay long, you know, they wouldn’t feel safe.”

So Juliette Orzal was asked to stay on as volunteer administrator, and Martha’s Table sponsored her for permanent residency in the United States. That was almost twenty years ago. She says that coming from a country where Americans were a constant presence, and where the educational system was in English, she had no difficulty adjusting to life here. There was only one American characteristic, she adds, that took some getting used to.

“I don’t know whether I would say it’s American or more of an individual trait, you know. I come from a country that is warm and hospitable, and I think that’s very, very strong in us, even here, in America, we’re always like, ‘You come to my house, we’re having dinner’, you become a part of that, and share. I think this warmth or hospitality is not as strong here.”

On the other hand, as a social worker and a volunteer services administrator Ms Orzal has a very positive view of what she sees as another typically American characteristic.

“Professionally, I think it’s their sense of reaching out to people right away, of helping. I think basically because of this democracy, you know, you have to allow people to take the initiative and do something. People are always willing to help. There’s always this propensity to say, ‘What can we do about that?’ I have a very high regard for the Americans’s way of just really reaching out right away, doing something.”

At Martha’s Table Juliette Orzal oversees a corps of some 4,000 regular volunteers, and approximately 4,000 additional individuals and groups that give occasional service throughout the year.