Looking for signs of giving this holiday season? Here’s one: one Ashburn elementary school recently partnered with one of the newest members of the community to perform work that will feed thousands in another part of the world.
Students at Mill Run Elementary School gathered on a Saturday in November and in about three hours packaged 32,000 meals that are ready to ship anywhere in the world.
“There is a world of learning in serving others,” said Diane Greene, a volunteer for the Mill Run PTO and its Community Cares program. Greene said the packaging event at the school was “life-changing” for her.
“It’s visceral. It’s palpable. You can feel the energy in the room,” she said. “It’s unifying. The families came to feed people and they really fed their own souls.”
The Mill Run event provided what Greene considers to be an important connection between Ashburn and the world, most of which does not resemble our community.
“The kids felt like they made a difference,” she said. “It teaches them that the whole world doesn’t look as picture perfect as Ashburn.”
Events like the one at Mill Run are an important resource for Stop Hunger Now (SHN), the nonprofit organization that worked with the school. Raleigh-based SHN, which has been focused on international hunger relief since 1998, has packaged more than 50 million meals since its meals packaging program began in 2005. In the program’s first year, SHN packaged 3.5 million meals; this year, it packaged 22 million.
Each one of those meals is important, said Dominic Alexander, SHN’s program manager for the National Capital Warehouse, which just signed a lease a few weeks ago on Guilford Drive in Ashburn.
“A lot of the kids that we help literally have nothing,” he said. “It might be their only meal for a day.”
SHN has honed its meal assembly process, which combines rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and a flavoring mix including 21 essential vitamins and minerals into small meal packets. Each meal costs just 25¢ to produce and has a five-year shelf life. Recently, regions such as the Horn of Africa, where political strife and drought resulted in starvation, have been recipients of the meals.
Businesses, schools, churches, Boy and Girl Scout Troops, and other organizations raise the money to pay for meal packaging events. SHN then provides all the packaging materials and food. The sponsoring organizations then provide the space and volunteers necessary to perform the physical work of packaging the meals, a process that requires many hands but little strain.
With the $8,000 Mill Run parents collected, student and family volunteers packaged 32,000 meals during their event last month. It was done in two 90-minute shifts. Another single donation for $1,000 was given to SHN, enough to pay for another 4,000 meals.
Mill Run Principal Paul L. Vickers said SHN kept the event lively.
“I like the idea that the smallest child and his parents and grandparents can help package the meals,” he said, explaining that a student would sound a gong each time 1,000 meals had been completed. “It’s pretty profound. It’s very exciting.”
Vickers said the whole project fell right into one of the key lessons at Mill Run: “We really believe that small people can do big things in this world.”
Greene said she, too, found that to be one of the cooler aspects of the event.
“Hey, they may be small kids, but they can make a big difference,” she said. “We loved the aspect that even our youngest students can participate and use their own two hands.”
Alexander it’s the hands, not the skills, SHN needs to package meals, so anyone can participate.
“We had kids of all ages,” he said. “Any age can participate, even if they’ve never done it before.”
At Mill Run, Vickers said, he, the PTO and other school leaders have tried to get that message across with a number of activities over the years. For example, the school collected Pennies for Peace, in which spare change was donated to help build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In October, the school held a Run to Stop Hunger. And during the packaging event in November, the school also collected canned food for local food banks.
Alexander said that while working out of the Richmond warehouse, he developed connections in Northern Virginia, and Ashburn seemed to be a logical location.
“It seemed kind of like a natural progression,” he said.
He said he fell into his field because he grew up with plenty and wanted to help those who did not.
“I had the things that I guess kids should have. I was never wanting,” he said. “I think what drives me is knowing the work I do helps somebody else. There’s no better feeling. I know I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Alexander said his work with SHN has resulted in the packaging of 6 million meals.
“I love going to work,” he said. “It’s just infectious. It’s contagious.”