PHILADELPHIA — The World Meeting of Families theme, “Love is Our Mission,” came fully alive in a corner of the Pennsylvania Convention Center last week where thousands of congress-goers participated in the Meeting’s official service project.
To the beat of an adrenaline-inducing musical soundtrack, hundreds of volunteers spent an hour at a time scooping dehydrated vegetables, soy and rice into bags that, in a well-ordered assembly line, were then weighed, sealed and packed into boxes ready to be shipped to Africa in time for Christmas.
The project was organized by Catholic Relief Services, the official international aid agency of the U.S. bishops. Its meal-packing program, known as Helping Hands, is available on a smaller scale to parishes, youth groups, and universities looking to host service events. The World Meeting of Families was one of the largest Helping Hands events the agency has organized.
Seven shifts of about 500 volunteers each over three days were to pack the meals destined for the impoverished West African nation Burkina Faso. In all, the goal was to have some 3,500 volunteers pack a total of around 200,000 meals.
Two of those volunteers were Christina Silvaria and Stephen Ellsworth, parishioners of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood, who won Catholic Charities-sponsored tickets to attend the gathering. Together they donned hairnets and plastic gloves and spent an hour weighing meal bags, adding or removing rice to get the weight exactly right.
“It was great to know that our little hands will make a difference in the lives of those who receive it,” Silvaria said. “It helped to have Neil Diamond on, too,” she added.
The goal for Silvaria and Ellsworth’s group of 500 volunteers was to package 40,000 meals in their hour. Every 3,000 to 4,000 meals completed, a gong was struck, triggering a ripple of cheers through the lines of workers.
Participants danced while measuring out rice. Children, arms loaded with food bags ran back and forth between tables, delivering their cargo to the packing volunteers. Those standing side-by-side struck up conversations.
“Where are you from?” Delaware; Philadelphia; Chicago; California; Nigeria; all over the din of hundreds of other voices, Top 40 bass lines, and the occasional crash of the gong — 12 crashes in all; the group hit its goal.
Christy Wimberg of St. Gianna Beretta Molla Parish, Northfield, worked with her sons, Connor, 12, and Tyler, 10. While she weighed bags, Connor and Tyler darted around the assembly line, bringing filled bags to the weighers, sealed bags to the packers, and empty containers back to their sources.
The entire Wimberg family attended the World Meeting of Families Congress, six altogether, with four children and teens attending the Youth Congress.
“We haven’t taken a vacation in a long time and we figured why not take it together in the name of God,” Wimberg said.
“I hope I can plant a seed in them so that when things get tough faith will bring them comfort, like it has for me,” she said. “We’ll see how much it takes root.”
Before beginning their work, each group of volunteers was addressed by Thomas Awiapo, who grew up in Ghana. He shared his story of how, as a young orphan growing up, he and his siblings were starving. What kept him going to school was the food each day he was given there through Catholic Relief Services.
“The power of just a little act of kindness can make the difference,” Awiapo said to the group of volunteers. “You are creating hope for another little child in Burkina Faso.”
Today, Awiapo holds a master’s degree and works for Catholic Relief Services in Ghana. His four children, he said, have never known hunger.
“Being in solidarity is not just the rich helping the poor,” Awiapo said in an interview after the event. “We are created for one another. As we journey to our maker we have to help each other along. This is exactly what God wants us to do — be our brother’s keeper, walking side by side, hand in hand to make the world a better place.”