Faith Conversations: Local effort to combat hunger seeks 14,000 volunteers, 2.5 million packed meals

About 2,500 volunteers of all ages helped pack 500,000 meals over two days at Fargo's Atonement Lutheran Church as part of the local Feed My Starving Children effort. Special to The Forum

FARGO — The odds may seem downright impossible, but organizers of the local Feed My Starving Children figure so did those in the biblical account of the multiplication of loaves and fishes.

In the fifth year of the effort to pack meals locally for malnourished children and their families overseas known as Fargo MobilePack, they’re trusting that, once again, God and his people will come through.

“Sometimes I think we need to take on more than we know we can handle, just to see if the Lord’s going to step in and make some things happen,” says Chris Haugen, who serves on the leadership team.

A retired teacher, Haugen is helping spread word of this year’s lofty goal to solicit 14,000 volunteers to pack 2.5 million meals over three days in early 2019. It’s well beyond last year’s effort, which gathered 2,400 volunteers who packed 528,984 meals in two days. But, according to Amy Okeson, volunteer coordinator, nearly 10,000 volunteers have already committed to a two-hour shift at the three-day event set for Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 at Scheels Arena, 5225 31st Ave. S., Fargo.

A young volunteer helps pack meals in February 2018 at Fargo's Atonement Lutheran Church. The goal for this year's local Feed My Starving Children effort, which will take place early next year, is to pack 2.5 million meals. Special to The Forum

Funding for the meals, at 22 cents each, is also underway, with $195,000 left to raise of the needed $500,000.

“God has moved in many people, circumstances and details for the Fargo MobilePack to have grown over five years, from 200,000 meals in 2015 to 2.5 million meals in 2019,” Okeson says.

“The world tells you this is not doable with a 100-percent volunteer organization,” she adds. But she’s convinced our community is willingly equipped.

“It’s energetic, there’s music playing, you’re having fun with your friends at the station where you’re packing and you’re helping provide 2.5 million meals to those in need," Okeson says. "It’s amazing, and our community recognizes the opportunity.”

A growing effort

This past summer, Okeson observed the program’s effects firsthand when traveling to the Dominican Republic to one of the cities FMSC serves, spending a day in the sugar cane fields. Meeting the children in person softened her heart.

"You see how the kids, after four years (of aid), no longer look sick," she says. "They’re getting an education. They’re not constantly worried about where the food is coming from and they have smiles on their faces.”

Ron Stensgard, who first brought the effort here, had especially big hopes for year five, Okeson says.

“God put it on his heart to do a million meals,” she says.

Then, the Rev. Paul Cross from Atonement Lutheran Church traveled to the Philippines to another of the program sites and suggested an even larger goal.

“We added another 500,000 meals every time we went (overseas),” Okeson laughs. “God has a plan.”

And apparently it includes, more than ever, the youth of our community. Haugen has been approaching schools to involve young people, and many have accepted the challenge. West Fargo High School has committed its entire student body.

Grace Sailor, 15, a sophomore at Sheyenne High School in West Fargo, has taken part every year through her church, initially as a group project for confirmation.

“It feels good to know we’re making an impact on others’ lives,” she says.

Many children and teens helped out in February 2018 when the local Feed My Starving Children effort took place at Fargo's Atonement Lutheran Church. Special to The Forum

But it’s real work, she insists, noting at the end of her shift last year, she was exhausted.

“It feels like you’ve run a marathon,” she says. “The warehouse crew is running around with boxes of soy and rice — it’s a workout basically. It’s a competition, but you’re helping people and it’s a fun experience.”

Last year, her friend Taryn Maycock joined her, and from the opening presentation explaining how the program helps others, Maycock says she was hooked.

“I’m not going to lie. I was tearing up. It meant so much to help these kids,” she says, adding that she and Grace gave almost every station a try. “You’re helping the kids, but you also get to hear the life stories of those you’re working with.”

Later, she realized how the effort helped her own mental state.

“The feeling you get is almost indescribable," Maycock says. "It’s like joy, love and a bit of sadness as you realize, ‘These kids don’t have enough food or clothes,’ but then, also, ‘I just fed these kids!’ It touches that spot in your heart.”

Okeson says the event’s success may all come down to prayer.

“We’re praying for the children who get the food, for the volunteers as they work, we pray at the beginning and at the end of the pack… everything is prayed over,” she says.

The program encourages sustainability in all locations it serves. Additionally, 91 percent of the donations go toward food, with 100 percent of funding coming from either individuals or businesses and no government assistance. Though FMSC focuses on the wider world, Okeson says she’s seen the plentiful return locally, both in the expansion of love that happens in giving and in situations such as hearing the adopted children of friends from church, originally from Uganda, say, “I know that food. I’ve had that before.”

“You never know when the child you’re packing for will end up sitting next to you,” she says, “someone who needed it to stay alive.”

Volunteers can register online beginning Monday, Nov. 26, at fmsc.org/fargo, or contact Amy Okeson at fmsc@atonementfargo.org or 701-237-9651, ext. 113. Donations also can be made online, or by checks written to FMSC, delivered in person or mailed to: FM Christian MobilePack for FMSC, c/o Atonement Lutheran Church, 4601 S. University Dr., Fargo, ND 58104, or through participating churches.

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.