This week the entire staff of the Pacific Area Office was encouraged to participate in the community service project of their choice. Some went to Auckland City Mission Food Bank. Others were at DePaul House. There were teams helping sort clothes at Salvation Army thrift store and others doing other things. For our day of service Larry and I chose to help at the "Feed the Need" Program. Feed the Need is a charitable trust that identifies provides hot, nutritious meals at schools that have high rates of low income kids who often go to school hungry, making it hard for them to learn and thrive. Largely volunteer based, they provide fresh cooked lunches for about 1500 students five days a week for ten weeks each winter. It seemed to be a worthy program.
We showed up at 9:00 AM and received a quick orientation to what we would be doing, then went right to work. There were also several LDS youth who were there doing some of the same jobs we were. We enjoyed the camaraderie we had with them as we all worked together on this project.
Our firsts job was to count out and bag pita bread into sacks for each classroom for the three different schools we would be serving. We began by putting stickers onto bags that gave the name of the school, the classroom number, and how many students were in that class. This way we knew exactly how many pieces of pita bread needed to go in each plastic sack. We then tied of those bags and placed them into heavy green cloth bags that designated the school they were to go to.
While we were bagging bread, the regular staff who work with the program were busy putting together three big vats of chicken-coconut curry. Once our job with the bread was done we were able to come help stir those vats with long wooden spoons while the staff cooks poured in huge bags of chopped potatoes, several gallon size cans of tomato sauce and many jars of some sort of chutney. As the ingredients all came together it became quite heavy to stir, but it was important to keep it moving so it never scorched on the bottom. As the stuff bubbled and cooked the whole room smelled heavenly!
Once the concoction was done, Rikky began scooping servings into individual plastic containers. At that point we were put on lid duty. Big trays of individual plastic tubs of hot curry were brought to us and we would stick on the lids, then pack them into the special foam boxes for transporting them to the schools. The lids on each box said the School name, Class # and number of students (along with how many students -if any- were vegetarian so we would know to put in a sufficient number of meat free servings)
We were on a tight schedule to get these meals ready and out the door into the waiting van in time to make the lunch period. We all moved as fast as we could, calling out "Tray" or "Box Up!" every time we finished a step so someone one the other side of the room knew to bring us the next tray of steaming food or to move the full box we had completed and replace it with the next empty one.
Finally we had them done, all 1,538 of them. We were tired but happy. But it didn't stop there. The whole crew took a short break to have a serving of the curry and bread for our own lunch. It was quite tasty! Then Larry and I hopped in our car to follow the van that would be delivering the meals so we could help unload and carry the boxes into the schools. At two of the schools we just left the boxes in an office where the school staff thanked us. At the last school, however, we were to line the boxes up in the courtyard and then children from each class came to get them.
About half the kids we saw that day wore no shoes. We did not know if this was typical Maori custom or they simply did not have any. I suspect it was some of both.
Some of the kids were shy about coming to get the boxes. Others were bold, proud to have been chosen as representatives from their classroom. A few of the younger grade students hardly seemed big enough to carry the large boxes, but they managed. Many of the kids greeted us with big smiles and thanks for their meals. I remember one little boy in particular who gave me a warm, lopsided grin and called out "Thank you Feed The Need peoples! Yous is great!"
Throughout the project I kept remembering scriptures that have taught us
"If ye are in the service of your fellow man, ye are in the service of your God" from King Benjamin's address (Mosiah 2:17) or "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my bretheren, ye have done it unto me". (Matthew 25:40)
I've been involved in a lot of different service projects over the years, but usually I have been one or two steps removed from the actual recipients of my service. I've done things like put together hygiene kits, tie quilts, or assembly infant layettes - but in none of those cases did I see the people who received them. I've worked in canneries and orchards, hoed weeds in tomato fields. In all of those I knew my efforts were going to help those in need. Somehow though, getting to give these boxes of food that I helped to prepare directly to the children who would be eating it felt very special. I did not do this for their thanks or for any accolades. Still, it was the personal connection we were able to establish with those children that made this a day I will long remember.
It felt really good to be part of the worldwide chain of Mormon Helping Hands.