Boxing meals, and serving hope, for Ukraine

About 2,600 volunteers registered for Sunday's meal-packing event for Ukraine at GCU Arena.

GCU packs nearly 500,000 meals for No Child Hungry, CityServe

Photos by Ralph Freso/Slideshow

William Lowry tells the story as if it weren’t a memory, as if it happened just a week ago. A day ago. An hour ago …

Lowry had traveled on a medical mission trip to Pestel, a one-doctor town of 80,000 high up in the mountains of southern Haiti. It’s where he saw the worst poverty he had ever seen.

Some of the townspeople approached him and the rest of his group, cradling their children and pleading with them, a desperation in their voices, “If you don’t take our children down from here, they are going to starve to death. We can’t even feed ourselves. We know if you take them, we know they will have a chance at a life; if they stay here, they will not.”

Students hype themselves up to bag hundreds of thousands of meals for Ukraine. Teams averaged about 100,000 meals every 30 minutes.

The medical missionaries couldn’t deny them and, entrusted with their most precious possessions, took those 13 children to Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince.

Lowry remembers three of those children: a 7- and 5-year-old boy and 4-year old girl.

One of the medical personnel in Port-au-Prince looked at Lowry and asked him to help with the worst of the three, the 7-year-old boy. He began to run a fever and was struggling.

“They said, ‘Can you put him in the bed?’” Lowry nodded his head, then gingerly reached for the frail boy, picking him up out of his chair and laying him on the bed. Then, “I heard groans that I will never forget for the rest of my life,” he said, his voice breaking as he struggled to hold back the tears of that memory — the memory that changed him. The memory that drives his life.

“I looked at him and said, ‘Are you OK?’ He nodded. That was at 6 o’clock on a Sunday night. At 3 o’clock in the morning, he died.”

By Wednesday, the girl passed away and by the following Sunday, the 5-year-old boy, too.

Lowry couldn’t wrap his head around how someone could starve to death just two hours from his home in Florida.

“I asked God, what are you trying to tell me?” he said, and he knew. It would be his mission to feed the world’s children.

No Child Hungry Founder/President William Lowry asked God, "What are you trying to tell me?" after seeing children die of hunger during a medical mission trip to Haiti.

It’s what the Grand Canyon University community felt called to do, alongside Lowry, who founded the nonprofit No Child Hungry in 2013. On Sunday, students, faculty and staff joined the organization and partner CityServe — GCU is a CityServe warehouse site — for a meal-packing event.

You are going to be doing something with your hands and your heart that's going to reach across the ocean to a very, very terrible situation, and you are going to place in the hands of people something that they desperately need.

William Lowry, President and founder of No Child Hungry

This time, No Child Hungry turned its attention to helping children in the war-ravaged country of Ukraine.

“Hunger is all over the world. Right now, in Ukraine, because of the missiles that are going off, the electricity is off, the water is off. Forty percent of Ukraine does not have electricity or power right now. Winter is settling in and it’s going to be so cold. They are going to be so hungry,” Lowry said.

"... You're going to be doing something with your hands and your heart that's going to reach across the ocean to a very, very terrible situation, and you are going to place in the hands of people something that they desperately need."

More than 2,600 volunteers, many of them GCU students, registered to spend four hours packing up to 500,000 meals for Ukraine. They were laser-focused in doing so, with teams of 12 working assembly-line style to put together bags of apple-cinnamon oatmeal.

A volunteer fills bins with rolled oats.

Some of the volunteers filled the bags with oatmeal, a soy protein, flavoring powder and apple cubes. Others weighed the bags to make sure they reached the 250-255 grams of required weight. Still others sealed the bags, which were placed into boxes at the end of each team’s work area. Once each box reached 36 bags, more volunteers hauled those boxes to the back of the Arena, where yet another assembly line taped the boxes closed and handed them off to be placed on pallets ready for shipping.

Volunteers set a record pace, packing 100,000 bags of meals every 30 minutes. The meals are part of three million meals No Child Hungry and CityServe are bringing to Ukraine, with the groups heading back there in a couple of weeks to pass out the second million in meals.

One of those volunteers was freshman nursing major and Honors College student Jazzy Menino, who was busy scooping oatmeal into bags.

“Just seeing what’s going on around the world, it makes you fully aware of all the things that we’re given — basic needs that other kids do not get,” she said.

GCU President Brian Mueller fills boxes with packaged meals. "What we're doing here is trying to shine a light in the middle of that darkness," Mueller said of putting together meals for Ukraine.

It was a sentiment shared by GCU President Brian Mueller, who was at the back of the Arena filling boxes with oatmeal packets at what he said with a smile was “definitely the fastest table.”

“It’s absolutely unnecessary for a country to have to go through that or families and children to have to go through that. There’s no reason for it,” he said.

But where there is darkness, there is also light, and Mueller said, with this meal-packing event, filled with hundreds of joyful volunteers, “What we’re doing here is trying to shine a light in the middle of that darkness, which has greater impact and influence than the darkness.”

GCU senior Cassandra Coria and her table of 12 volunteers fill, measure and weigh the meal packets, which included oatmeal, a soy protein, apple cubes and flavoring.

“We’re just trying to be nice,” confirmed 6-year-old Donovan Rentas, who was helping at the table next to Mueller’s alongside mom Valerie Maloney, a community volunteer who wanted to join with the GCU community in the meal-packing event.

That light — that positivity — permeated the Arena, from the first notes Worship team members Meredith Estrada and Isabella Gomes sang at the chapel service preceding the event to the “Whoop-whoop-whoops!” and the “1-2-3, GCU!” cheers that emanated through the space to signify a team filling yet another box.

It was an energy that seemed to power students such as Josh Knapp, who struck a dance move often as he filled boxes at the end of his volunteer table. The freshman finance major said he and his family were avid volunteers for Feed My Starving Children.

The meals GCU volunteers packaged on Sunday are part of 3 million meals being sent to Ukraine. The second million will be handed out by No Child Hungry and CityServe in a couple of weeks.

“I just love being able to give back, whether in our own community or whether that be somewhere far away … to make a small difference,” he said while volunteering alongside his friends before barking out, “Guys, we have another one!” as his group celebrated filling another box with their chosen cheer, “1-2-3, another one!!!”

Like Knapp, Ashley Remely, a nursing sophomore, said the event brought her back to her elementary school days. “My mom would take us to the food bank, and we packed food,” she said. But more than nostalgia, she wanted to get up early Sunday to help in the meal-packing effort because “being able to touch other people’s lives overseas is really cool.”

The energy in the Arena also seemed to power volunteers who were furiously taping boxes closed and helping get them to pallets. They were inundated with filled boxes arriving and piling up faster than they could tape them.

“Sir, the table’s full,” said Marie Welch, who works for Grand Canyon Education, as she asked for another pallet so the box-taping team could move those boxes through. She said she joined Sunday’s effort because she loves community service.

Senior nursing student Mason Green hauls boxes filled with meals to the back of the Arena, where they were loaded onto pallets.

Mason Green, a senior nursing/nutrition/health student, was dropping off filled box after filled box to those box-tapers. For him, not only was this event about helping others, but it was about “being in the middle of a room that loves the Lord,” just as he does, he said.

“That’s something amazing that we can come together and do something good for other people,” said Menino. “We don’t even know them. They’re all the way across the world. It’s such a good thing. And it’s fun working together with people that I don’t even know,” said Menino.

Reginald Graves, who volunteered from Helping Hands Ministries at the urging of Pastor Chris Madden, perhaps said it best when he expressed why he came: When people need help, you help.

“That’s what God teaches us,” he said, before adding: “I’m representing God."

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

Related content:

GCU News: GCU, CityServe wraps arms around those in need

GCU News: GCU, City Serve officially opens distribution center

GCU News: CityServe helps facility grow hope, and a garden

GCU News: Ukraine holds special place in professor's heart


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David said to Michal, "It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when He appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel — I will celebrate before the Lord. (2 Samuel 6:21)

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