Vienna Volunteers Drive Success of Food For Others
When Laura Gerke of Vienna was planning her son’s 13th birthday party in November, she thought about doing something a little different.
"I started thinking ‘how many iTunes and Game stop cards you have?’ Daniel gets so much stuff for his birthday and Christmas, and I thought this year might be an opportunity to combine fun activities with a service project," Gerke said.
When she learned about Food for Others Power Pack Program (P3), which provides food packs for local elementary children who don’t have balanced meals to eat on the weekends, her idea crystallized into action.
"I talked with my son about it, and he thought it was a great idea," said Gerke. "I emailed party invitations and asked his friends to donate food instead of bringing gifts. Everyone was on board, and the parents thought it was a great idea."
The 10 boys at his birthday party brought enough food for 33 packets to donate to the Power Pack Program. "They had fun assembling the food packets, in between playing foose ball and air hockey," Gerke said.
"We wanted to plant the seed that it’s not all about yourself. Daniel is well aware that his needs are met, and there are people in greater need," Gerke said. "It’s hard to believe there are children right here in Fairfax County, who, when they go home for the weekend, don’t have enough food to eat."
NIKKI CLIFFORD, Food for Others’ volunteer coordinator, launched the P3 program in October, and said she has been pleasantly surprised at the success of the program.
"It’s incredible how the program has taken off," Clifford said. "I have elementary schools helping other elementary schools. We connect churches and youth groups with schools. The response has been fantastic."
Clifford said she receives food packs nearly every day, and has increased the organization’s commitment from 50 to 75 packs a week to several Fairfax County elementary schools. She said school counselors identify the children in need, about 85 percent of whom receive free and reduced lunches.
"It’s sad, but many children in our area have very little to eat between their school lunch on Friday and the breakfast they get at school on Monday morning," Clifford said. "Mothers tell me their children hoard food under their beds, and sometimes have to lock up the refrigerator to make the food last. That’s just incredible to me."
Clifford said volunteers and generous donors, like Gerke, help sustain Food for Others, the largest distributor of free food directly to people in need in Northern Virginia. Last year, volunteers logged 23,746 hours, the equivalent of 11 full-time positions.
"I have the easiest job in the world, and I love coming to work. The volunteers here are amazing," Clifford said.
Even though Northern Virginia is considered one of the wealthiest areas in the country, the poverty rate is still about 5 percent, which means more than 90,000 people are living in poverty and 30 percent are children, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures.
"We have nine wonderful full-time employees," said Lynne Galanis, Food for Others finance manager, "but it’s the hard work of over 1,000 volunteers that allow us to keep our costs low and maximize our service to those in need."
FOOD FOR OTHERS began feeding the poor in Northern Virginia in December 1995, continuing an earlier program of emergency food services designed as a safety net to assure no individual in Northern Virginia should go to bed hungry.
The overall program concept continues with three primary activities: direct food assistance at the Merrifield warehouse, food distributions at 14 sites every night in low-income neighborhoods and food bank operations for organizations serving families and individuals unable to meet their basic need for food.
The organization provides about 250,000 pounds of food for an average of 3,000 families each month at its warehouse distribution and street-corner sites. In the past four years, according to Roxanne Rice, the organization’s executive director, Food For Others has distributed nearly 10 million pounds of food to local residents.
"The organization was started by a dedicated team of volunteers, and the importance of volunteers continues to this day," said Rice, the organization’s executive director. "We couldn’t do what we do without extra hands provided by this dedicated group. Our volunteers bring such positive energy."
"This is wonderful organization. Everyone is here for the right reasons," said Wendell Moore, a retiree from Fairfax who has volunteered at Food for Others for two years. "The front-desk job is very satisfying because you can see how you’re helping people right in front of you."
Peter Spain, a retiree from Vienna, has volunteered at Food for Others for seven years. He said the rewards he gets helping others outweighs the hours he puts in.
"I don’t think there’s anything more basic than hunger. The cost of living here is so high, and it’s very easy to find yourself in a situation where you need help," said Spain, who helps clients navigate the intake process.
"The key thing is to respect the clients. A lot of people who come through these doors never thought they would need help," Spain said.
"As a volunteer, I have an opportunity to build relationships with clients," said Michael Powers of Springfield. "You get to know them and their stories, what brought them here, and they deserve compassion. They don’t need to feel like they are being judged because they need our assistance."
Rice said she recently received a note from a single mother with four children who had just lost her job. "She said her children always participated in the Boy Scout Food Drives, and she couldn’t believe she needed help. We often get volunteers who were once clients, and those who were once in a position to volunteer or donate now need our help," Rice said.
Rice said the organization’s volunteers represent a cross-section of the community, including workplace team-building groups; adult service organizations; university students, retired individuals; religious organizations and families and school groups ranging from grade school to high school.
"Volunteers are the heart and soul of our operations, and we view volunteers as our partners in the fight against hunger," Rice said.
TO VOLUNTEER OR LEARN more about the Power Pack Program and other programs, go to www.foodforothers.org or call 703-207-9173 to speak with volunteer coordinator Nikki Clifford. "Volunteers who are bilingual in English and Spanish are especially needed. Our goal is to provide a meaningful volunteer experience in a positive environment," Clifford said.