If the differing views about the recent election divided the Lemont community, it was a blockbuster charity event that brought everyone back together.
On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, more than one thousand volunteers packed the Witkowski Center, 1115 Warner Ave., for the Helping Hands Across Lemont MobilePack. The event benefited Feed My Starving Children, a Christian non-profit organization dedicated to feeding children without access to adequate food.
Together, the volunteers produced about 200,000 meals for severely malnourished children in Haiti and other struggling nations.
The list of sponsoring organizations for the event reads like a Lemont telephone directory. From corporate sponsors like Kohl’s to local businesses, churches, youth groups, civic organizations, and school groups, Lemont residents were out in full force giving of their time and money to help those in need.
Thanks to sponsors and individual donations, the event raised more than $40,000 to fund the purchase of the supplies needed to make the meals.
A Hands-On Experience
When I volunteered at the event on Thursday, I packaged meals alongside elementary school students, senior citizens, moms and dads with children of every age, high school students, nuns, and employees who had taken time off work to help out.
The speed with which this diverse group of 88 people came together to learn the packaging process and work together on a fast-paced assembly line was impressive.
A stay-at-home mom opened the bag and placed it in the funnel. A middle-schooler poured in the dehydrated vegetables. A nurse scooped the rice, then passed the bag to a nine-year-old for weighing. A dad and his daughter sealed the bags, while a mother of three loaded the completed meal packages into boxes.
One. Two. Three. “Table two is too cool!” we all shouted, cuing a runner to pick up our completed box and transfer it to the loading area.
We all worked as fast as we could, knowing that the more bags we made, the greater the number of children who would have food on their tables in the not-so-distant future. Our bags would soon be on a container ship headed for Haiti or one of the 69 other Feed My Starving Children partner locations where the global food crisis is intensifying.
Throughout our two-hour shift, my fellow volunteers spoke of the images we had seen in a short video before the start of our shift. Our group was introduced to a child who had been orphaned and was on the brink of starvation before food from Feed My Starving Children made its way to her village.
The specially formulated meal of rice, soy, vegetables and a chicken-flavored powder with vitamins was designed to bring the malnourished back to health over time. The images of the girl after a year on the program were startling, and helped our group to keep up the pace as we worked to fill the boxes.
Turning Concern into Action
It was those images that event organizer Peggy Magdziarz couldn’t get out of her head after volunteering at a MobilePack unit at her daughters’ gymnastics center in Burr Ridge this past summer.
“I was taken aback by how much impact you can have in such a short period of time,” she said. “I woke up every day thinking about it. I just could not get it out of my head.”
After a second volunteer experience, this time at the group’s permanent meal-packing site in Aurora with a Lemont Girl Scout troop, she decided that she had to do more.
“I couldn’t watch that video one more time and do nothing,” Magdziarz said.
She decided to bring a MobilePack unit to Lemont, which required an extensive financial and volunteer recruitment commitment.
“There was a huge concern that we wouldn’t be able to raise the $19,000 minimum in time," she said. "Even in a community that rallies support, there are so many other causes that are near and dear to people’s hearts. But I was willing to take a shot because I knew that the community would get behind it.”
Together with Lemont resident Terri O’Neill, who runs the nonprofit Hope & Friendship ministry and Lemont Township human services, Magdziarz was able to secure dozens of sponsors who helped the group more than double its initial goals for both fundraising and meals made.
Magdziarz says she was impressed by the participation of so many varied groups in the Lemont area, including the Lemont Junior Woman's Club, Everest Academy, St. Alphonsus/St. Patrick's School, Lemont Girl Scouts and more.
“People really do want to teach their children strong values and life lessons,” she said. “I think the overwhelming response of people wanting to bring their kids to do this event speaks a lot to the kind of community we live in.”
Joel Howells, the Feed My Starving Children MobilePack supervisor who led the event on-site, noted that the diversity of involvement made the Lemont event unique.
“In some of our events, it’s a church or another group sponsoring it. In Lemont, it was the whole community coming together — schools, churches and businesses,” he said.
The FMSC Experience
Howells travels all over the United States running MobilePack events and says the response by those who participate is overwhelmingly positive.
“People have such a fun time serving,” he said. “It think we as humans are wired in such a way that when we help others, we feel good.”
Feed My Starving Children, which is based in Minnesota, has grown considerably in recent years. In 2003, the organization produced three million meals. Last year, that number blossomed to about 125 million. (About one-third of those were made by MobilePack units; the remainder were produced at the five permanent sites in Minnesota and Illinois.)
During my shift, my fellow volunteers and I made more than 15,000 meals. Howells says that’s enough to feed 42 starving children one meal a day for a year.
To be able to make such a difference in a two-hour period is gratifying for many volunteers, but Howells hopes that each person takes away more than that.
“The experience helps our volunteers develop compassion for children around the world,” he explained. “Whether they leave this place and partner with Feed My Starving Children again or serve those in need in another way, we hope their efforts to help others continue.”
Magdziarz also hopes that participants will be inspired to make a difference for those in need.
“It might not be everyone’s idea to assist other countries. Some people may feel that there is a great need in the United States, or that there’s a great need right here in Lemont,” she said. “What I’d like to see happen is that people realize that even if this isn’t your cause to rally behind, you can take whatever cause that is and get behind it.”
For more on Feed My Starving Children, visit our photo gallery of images from Thursday's volunteer efforts.