03/15/09 — Winning hearts and minds through full stomachs

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Winning hearts and minds through full stomachs

By Anessa Myers
Published in News on March 15, 2009 2:00 AM

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Col. Stephen Higgins, commander of the 4th Medical Group at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, his wife, Julie, and sons David, 12, and Jonathan, 9, pack buckets with bags of rice and soy meals at the MERCI Center in Rosewood on Saturday morning. Over 300 volunteers helped pack 110,880 meals that will be sent to hungry children in Afghanistan.

Helping more than 100,000 people in an hour may seem like a daunting feat.

But about 350 Seymour Johnson Air Force Base personnel and their families did just that Saturday morning at the MERCI Center in Rosewood.

They braved the rain and cool temperatures to lend a hand in packaging about 110,880 meals that will be sent to impoverished children in Afghanistan.

The first-ever volunteer event came together because of a partnership between Stop Hunger Now, the MERCI Center and recently-added partner Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

"Most of these meals will go to refugee camps and provide substantial hunger relief to people that are basically homeless," said Rick Kearney, Goldsboro operation sharehouse coordinator for Stop Hunger Now.

With a hammer in some hands and bags in others, the volunteers stuffed bags of rice and soy meals into standard-size buckets and sealed them tight.

"We would have normally used cardboard, but we needed to have weather-resistant containers to abide by the standards (to send the food to Afghanistan)," Kearney said.

But the buckets won't go without use.

"The bucket is almost as valuable to them as the food is. They can use it to transport water and other things. This is almost a dual shipment," Kearney said.

But even more than the buckets and the food the volunteers at the center this weekend were there to provide Afghan people with something more.

"More than the nutrition, we want to provide them with hope," he said. "We want to provide them hope for a healthier life. This shows them that somebody, thousands of miles away, cares for them."

Col. Scott Ofsdahl, 4th Fighter Wing chaplain, said that they want to win the "hearts and minds of the Afghan people."

Each bag of the rice mixture -- resembling rice pilaf, Ofsdahl said -- can feed eight people.

And Tanya Kelly, 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Mark Kelly's wife and head of the Key Spouses program, said she couldn't believe that so little could do so much for others.

"For us, a 25-cent meal will make eight meals for them," she said. "That's phenomenal."

Two-hundred people were expected to come and help with packaging the meals to send to families thousands of miles away, but at about 10:15 a.m., packaging was under way, with more than 300 volunteers inside the center's warehouse.

"It went remarkably well," Kearney said.

Mrs. Kelly deemed it a "huge success."

"We had overwhelming support from the base," she said. "The experience was fabulous. It was very well organized by the MERCI Center. They told us what to do, and we got it done in literally like 35 minutes."

The packaging was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. and end around noon, but at 11 a.m., cars were pulling out of the center's parking lot because all 110,880 meals were packed and ready to be sent.

Stop the Hunger and MERCI Center organizers were glad to have so many people and so many military personnel to help.

"They are used to receiving orders and following them," Kearney said.

"It's all about taking the initiative. They did that. And talk about military efficiency," Ofsdahl said.

For many, it was a family event.

Col. Stephen Higgins, the 4th Medical Group Commander, brought his wife and two boys with him.

"We want to try to teach them to put others before self," he said.

"We want to teach the kids service," his wife, Julie, said.

"And the MERCI Center makes it very convenient to come for an hour or so and help out," Higgins said.

Travis and Amorita Jenkins and Kevin and Sue Ann Franklin also came out to lend a hand.

"This is for such a good cause," Mrs. Jenkins said.

"We try to give back to the community whenever we can," Mrs. Franklin said.

This won't likely be the last time that the three groups will get together.

The organizers said they are already focusing on what's ahead.

"We had a number of people ask of how they could come back and help and bring different groups," Mrs. Kelly said. "We would love to go back out to do the packaging of the meals, with the rice and spices that goes in them."

The event had been in the making for months to develop the partnership between the Hunger and MERCI groups and the base, and applying to send the food through the base to Afghanistan was also a lengthy process.

"We've been working on this since October I think," Kearney said. "Under the law, we can't have but one shipment going through at a time, so as soon as this one is shipped, we will be planning the next one. And it won't take a long next time because we have the initial work done."

The rice and soy meals were expected to undergo final inspection Saturday and be shipped to Afghanistan in the next three weeks, Kearney added.

"Kudos to all the people who came out to help use," Ofsdahl said.