By Coty Dolores Miranda GSN Contributor
More than 1,200 foster and developmentally challenged children and teens served by four nonprofits will have their own chance to give back when they convene Saturday, Aug. 18, to lend their hands in helping feed the hungry throughout the world.
Dubbed an “Extraordinary People Event” by Mesa-based Feed My Starving Children, will feature the assembly of “Manna Packs,” high-protein food distributed in impoverished countries around the world.
The event builds on a smaller session last year, when foster children from the Arizona Department of Child Safety pitched in at Feed My Starving Children’s packing center at 1345 Alma School Road, joined by foster parents and DCS employees.
This year, as a result of board member and Ahwatukee pediatrician Dr. Diane Matsumoto’s vision, three other groups are joining the foster kids at the Mesa Convention Center, for three separate two-hour packing sessions between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Medically fragile children and young adults with developmental disabilities will work with the foster kids.
A carnival organized by a 15-year-old Chandler girl will entertain the groups after each food-packing session.
HopeKids Arizona, a nonprofit that helps families who have children with a life-threatening illness, is one of those groups.
Executive Director Kimberly Trichel said HopeKids organizes nearly 500 events annually for the 7,300 family members it serves in Arizona.
Approximately 45 percent of those families have children battling cancer while others have rare chromosome disorders, cystic fibrosis, mitochondrial disease or are organ transplant recipients.
“We’re excited to partner with Feed My Starving Children on this new project. We’ve volunteered with them in the past and they’ve always allowed our HopeKids in wheelchairs and HopeKids with other medical conditions to participate in any way possible,” she said, adding:
“They came up with this wonderful event to allow extraordinary people to pack food and serve others. Our organization focuses on providing events that bring families together, and this is a perfect event for our families to connect, while serving others in need.”
That is who these “extraordinary people” are being invited to the food packing event, said Nate Shepherd, development advisor for Feed My Starving Children
“We can offer a voluntary experience for special needs kids. A lot of organizations can’t do that,” he said. “All our food goes to projects out of the U.S., but we wanted something local so that these kids, who might not be able to give back, can know they’re helping others.”
Raising Special Kids AZ, the Arizona chapter of Family Voices – a national network advocating for health care services for children and youth from birth to age 26 with special health care needs – is another newcomer to the packing event. The other group is the Tempe-based nonprofit Pathway to Work.
According to board member and organization spokeswoman Maureen Mills, Pathway to Work assists adults with developmental disabilities prepare for employment through practical education and participation in community activities.
“Volunteering gives people, including those with disabilities, the opportunity to share their time, talents, and energy with people in their community. It’s an opportunity to help people in need, make new friends and social connections, participate more in the community, and learn job skills and social skills,” said Mills.
“According to research, the odds of being very happy rose 7 percent among those who volunteer monthly, and 12 percent for people who volunteer every two to four weeks,” Mills said.
This is the third year the Arizona Department of Child Safety is bringing foster children and their foster families to Feed My Starving Children.
DCS community liaison Rayetta Sanchez called it “an amazing opportunity for DCS staff to work side by side with our foster families.”
“Because we’re all on the same team – helping to provide safe environments for children to thrive – it’s great to have a positive activity we can do together. The relationship building that takes place between DCS and the foster community is priceless,” said Sanchez.
Sanchez said she is dedicated to developing partnerships in the community that support Arizona’s foster children.
“Because state agencies like ours are limited in terms of resources and budget, it is extremely important for the community to get engaged in meeting some of the needs,” she said. “This event is a great example of a win-win for DCS, our community, foster families, and children around the world.”
The food-packing experience leaves most foster kids with an indelible impression.
“One of my passions is helping to make positive childhood memories for children in foster care who have often experienced very difficult life challenges,” she explained.
“The FMSC event is a great way for these children to spend fun time with their foster families, while helping feed children in need,” she said. “There’s nothing like hearing the laughter of children and adults alik, as they are enjoying each other’s company and packing meals together.”
Volunteers are essential to an event of this size, said Nate Shepherd, a Queen Creek resident who was a dedicated volunteer for years before joining the staff at Feed My Starving Children two months ago.
Of the expected 250 Extraordinary People Event volunteers, one of the youngest is undertaking a huge task: organizing and overseeing carnival activities for the three separate packing sessions.
Tatum McMillan, 15, is in charge of the carnival project, which includes 10 activity booths for bean bag and ring tossing, “go fish” games, a Wheel of Fortune and a Plinko game.
The Hamilton High School sophomore has also arranged for a photo booth for the children and their adult guardians.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with people in my community, volunteering at different events and being involved with school clubs and activities,” said Tatum, a member of the Hamilton High Student Council and track and cross country teams.
“The Chandler Education Foundation and Dr. Matsumoto personally asked me to be a part of this event because they know my love for working with others and being able to make a difference in our community,” Tatum explained, adding:
“This is a great opportunity for families to have fun and play games together and I truly feel the event will build lasting memories for everyone involved.”
The Chandler Educational Foundation is also providing other volunteers for the Extraordinary People Event mobile pack. A free lunch for all participants is provided by Honey Bear’s BBQ.
Even as this packing event is exponentially larger than previous ones involving young people, it is only a beginning if Matsumoto reaches the goal she envisions.
“Diane would like to see it keep growing with perhaps including at-risk teens,” said Shepherd.
Event planner Jeanette Relf said Feed My Starving Children expects to pack 108,864 meals, providing 298 children one meal a day for a year