While in California, I spent over two weeks volunteering for a Christian missionary called Gleanings for the Hungry. Had I known volunteering via Workaway could be so much fun, I would have done it a lot sooner.

Fun fact about traveling: no matter how much freedom you have, you might still be stuck on your old ill-fated habits. For a long time, I felt like I needed to slow down my traveling. Despite realizing this, I kept on going at a rather quick pace.

And it wasn’t just the speed of my travels that had been bugging me. I often miss being part of something. A group, a community, anything. Some place where where I can feel useful and where I can stay with the same people for more than a day or two before saying farewell.

The solution? Volunteering via Workaway.

Gleanigns for the Hungry, California as seen from a nearby hill.

Gleanings for the Hungry is located San Joaquin Valley in Central California. The closest city is Fresno about 56 kilometers (35 miles) away.

Hollow tree trunk at Sequoia National Park

Gleanings for the Hungry is also less than an hour away from Sequoia National Park, the home of the gigantic sequoia trees.

What is This Workaway, Anyway?

Before heading to the United States on a cargo ship, I decided I would finally try volunteering after arriving in the country. I joined Workaway.info, a website that lists volunteering opportunities all over the world. Many travellers had recommended Workaway for me before, but I had never actually done it.

Workaway.info is not the only site that lists volunteering opportunities. HelpX does the same thing with all kinds of jobs, while WWOOF (aka “WWOOFing”) offers volunteering opportunities on organic farms. Most of the site comes with a registration fee, but otherwise participating is free.

The range of jobs at Workaway is very vast – some volunteering spots are run by big organizations, while other hosts might simply be local families looking for help at housework. Sometimes you commit for just a week or less, while other places can let you work for months and months.

I search a bit until I found a volunteering place that seemed interesting. “Help out a charity in California, USA” the title simply said. After reading more information about the place, I contacted the organization and arranged a stay of almost two weeks for August.

Peaches drying in the sun at Gleanings for the Hungry.

Peaches drying in the sun.

Oranges and other fruits in a jar at Gleanings for the Hungry dining hall.

Most Workaway hosts offer free food and accommodation. The food at Gleanings for the Hungry was absolutely amazing.

What Does Gleanings for the Hungry Do?

I volunteered in an organization called Gleanings for the Hungry, California. Gleanings for the Hungry is part of Youth With A Mission (YWAM), a Christian missionary organization that has over a thousand missionaries all over the world.

The basic idea of Gleanings for the Hungry is quite simple: Gleanings gets food donations from different producers. Volunteers at Gleanings for the Hungry go through the donations and make easily transportable portions out of them. The food aid is then packed and shipped all over the world.

For example, one part of the missionary sorts out peaches that haven’t been suitable for sale in supermarkets. The worst peaches get thrown away while the edible ones are sliced by a machine, dried and packed to be delivered all over the world.

Another line at the missionary makes a soup mix out of donated foodstuff such as dried lentils, mashed potato powder and pasta with expired best before dates. Some volunteers also do tool repairs at the workshop, while others work at the kitchen or do landscaping.

Peaches drying at Gleanings for the Hungry, California.

Workaway volunteers usually work 5 hours a day at Gleanings for the Hungry. Wednesday and Saturday are shorter days and Sunday is a day off.

Peaches drying up on the field at Gleanings for the Hungry, Dinuba.

The scale of the missionary is just amazing. Each day we produces hundreds of thousands of portions of food.

Volunteering in the Name of God

The foods packed at Gleanings for the Hungry are not just delivered for the starving. Gleanings for the Hungry is a missionary, after all, so they also use the chance to spread the Gospel while serving the food. As Gleanings’ website states, their vision is “to feed those in need both physically and spiritually”.

As an atheist, this made me face an ethical dilemma. I don’t mind feeding the hungry, but do I want to help spread Christianity, too?

I gave this a lot of consideration before contacting Gleanings. Eventually I decided to just give it a shot and take volunteering at Gleanings for the Hungry as an cultural experience. I’ve been to a Buddhist meditation retreat and participated in Hindu seremonies at a Nepali village, so why should a Christian missionary be any different?

Interestingly, Gleanings for the Hungry makes absolutely no mention of Christianity and missionary work on their Workaway listing. I’m guessing this is done on purpose to reach out for non-religious volunteers. They don’t even mention the organizations name – some of the other Workaway volunteers only knew what they were joining a few days before arriving.

(I knew what I was applying for because I saw the words “For the Hungry” on a t-shirt on a photo at their Workaway profile. I then found Gleanings for the Hungry’s website after searching the phrase on Google. I’m pretty proud of my detective skills!)

Dry peach processing plant at Gleanings for the Hungry.

The dried peaches are processed with an old machine that washes and cuts the peaches. Despite the machine, manual labor is required in nearly all parts of the process.

The soup factory of Gleanings for the Hungry.

The soup factory – my favourite work place at Gleanings for the Hungry.

My Experience of Volunteering at Gleanings for the Hungry

Despite my initial worries, I really enjoyed my stay at Gleanings for the Hungry. I tried a few different jobs, but I mainly worked at the soup factory. After the first few days, I stared supervising the packing of the soup mixes and helping the permanent staff who ran the place. I also occasionally worked at the dried peach plant – a harder and more monotonous job, but not completely unbearable.

Gleanings for the Hungry usually has at least a few dozen volunteers, although most of these volunteers come from different church groups in the United States and Canada. Our group of Workaway volunteers – or “backpackers” as we were known at Gleanings – consisted of just a few people from different countries.

As backpackers, we had a few more liberties than the volunteers of the church groups. For example, we were often able to choose what work we would do on each day. Hanging out with the other backpackers was great, and we formed a quite tight clique.

The other backpackers weren’t that religious either, so sticking together helped us deal with the feeling of being outsiders. Although I got along very well with the staff members and church group members at Gleanings for the Hungry, it was still nice to share thoughts with people that had a more similar view on the world as I do.

Arimo Koo at Kings Canyon National Park, California.

One day we did a day trip to the nearby Kings Canyon National Park. The views were incredible!

Old mining caves on a hill near Gleanings for the Hungry.

There were places to explore nearby, too. Me and other backpackers went to explore old mining caves during my last week.

Workaway Really Works

I eventually decided to extend my stay, volunteering at Gleanings for the Hungry for over two weeks. The place was very well organized and the food and company were absolutely wonderful. We also had lots of spare time, so I could work on my other projects and make day trips to other places nearby.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I’ve missed the feeling of being part of something while I travel. Despite being a bit of an outsider at a Christian missionary, volunteering via Workaway gave me what I had looked for. I really enjoyed volunteering at Gleanings, and I felt sad when I finally left the place.

A few weeks later, I volunteered via Workaway again, this time in a Buddhist meditation center in Arizona. Once again the experience was truly delightful. Although I haven’t arranged my third Workaway volunteering experience yet, I know I’ll do more volunteering in the near future.