Friday, May 19, 2017
Cristina Cabrera Jarro
MIAMI | Bread is an essential symbol in the Catholic faith. Bread also feeds and nurtures human beings. But what about people around the world who lack their daily bread? Those who do not know when or if their next meal will come?
Students from Our Lady of Lourdes School made those connections as they prepared to pack 50,000 meals for the hungry in Burkina Faso, Africa — a landlocked country described as poor even by West African standards. With the help of Catholic Relief Services’ Helping Hands program and its partner, Rise Against Hunger, the school and parish community hosted a meal packing event to aid the African country.
“This has given us a lesson that just because we can’t have a snack after school, doesn’t mean we won’t eventually eat,” said fifth-grader Sophia Suarez. “We should be thinking about how the poor might not.”
Burkina Faso, which translates to “land of honest men,” is arid. In the northern part, severe droughts prevent nearly anything from growing.
“We’re trying to help fill the gap during that season when they can’t even grow food,” said Rachel Holmes, a CRS representative who works with Helping Hands. “It’s not a matter of having access to food. They can’t grow anything.”
Holmes witnessed first-hand the struggles of the farmers in the region. In the long term, CRS has been helping them grow food during the dry season by installing new water pumps and piping, teaching them new farming techniques and helping them acquire drought resistant seeds. But the struggle remains.
“We really want them to eventually raise their own food during that time, but it’s really hard when there’s no rain. You need water to grow food,” Holmes said.
Making people aware of the situation and soliciting donations is fine, but Holmes noted that hands-on meal packing experiences result in a more personal connection between the people in need and those who want to help them.
“When I talk about hunger with a PowerPoint I can talk about it as much as I want, but when you take someone into the room where they will pack, and show them that they are literally packaging meals that are going to go overseas to touch someone just like them, that is the most powerful thing,” said Holmes.
After Our Lady of Lourdes middle school teacher Michelle Rodriguez participated in a different meal packing event with her Emmaus group, she wanted the entire community to engage in a similar experience. She pitched the idea to Msgr. Kenneth Schwanger, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, who supported her entirely.
“What I pushed for the most was that it was a project that the school and parish could do together,” said Rodriguez.
The proposal reached the desk of Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who suggested CRS’s Helping Hands as an ideal program.
As things fell into place, one thing still concerned Rodriguez: the cost. It costs $25,000 to buy and pack 55,000 meals.
“I told Msgr. Schwanger that it was a lot of money, but he said that that was the least of my worries,” Rodriguez said.
The community united in fundraising. The school made it part of the students’ Lenten sacrifice. Emptied Gatorade bottles became decorated coin banks, and students donated at least a quarter a day, accompanying their generosity with prayer and reflection.
“Their hearts are very open,” said Ana Yvette De Atienza, a third-grade teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes. “They were really excited by the opportunity to donate and help with meal packing.”
“They’re up for the challenge,” said Jason Haulbrook, a community engagement coordinator with Rise Against Hunger, the international hunger relief agency that provides all necessary supplies and staff for CRS’ Helping Hands events. “For your first event to do 55,000 meals over three days: That is amazing.”
Meal packing stations were set up in the school’s cafeteria. Each station had everything necessary, including funnels with which to pour powdered soy protein, vegetable flakes, rice and a vitamin pouch. Once filled, bags were weighed, sealed and boxed.
According to Haulbrook, on average a person can pack about 150 meals in an hour. Try as you may, the process becomes a little messy. In the midst of the “organized chaos,” students and volunteers reached a 5000-packaged meal goal in under an hour.
“People didn’t believe me when I told them that Americans take time off of their day to package meals. They thought it was just a big warehouse that ships them out,” said Holmes, referring to the people of Burkina Faso. “They would not believe me until I showed them pictures of people with hairnets and at the stations. It was so meaningful to them and they were so grateful.”