Right before entering the hallway to the Mt. Pleasant Middle School gymnasium, there?s a sign posted to the door, ?Life?s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?? It?s a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that passers-by can ponder in the stillness before opening the door, where their senses are electrified by music, laughter and just a feeling of joy as students work their way toward packaging 125,000 meals for Texas residents still living in FEMA trailers following the destruction of Hurricane Harvey last fall.
The three-day packaging event kicked off Tuesday, April 24, with sixth-graders putting on hair nets and gloves and getting to work. Middle School English and language arts teacher Jeremy Klopfenstein said the kids were excited and came ready to work.
?The kids, they really want to help,? Klopfenstein said as a group of students cheered, signaling they had filled a five-gallon bucket with packaged meals. ?It?s nice for them to come to school and be more than just a grade and a homework assignment. Anytime you can give them a purpose and make it bigger than just school, they get excited.?
The gymnasium was divided into two sections. The east side of the gym was filled with a dozen tables, set two deep in rows of six. The students lined up in groups around the tables. Students like Harmon Ensminger stood along the baseline, filling five-gallon buckets with rice or beans. Runners would then take the filled buckets to the head of each table and fill the bins where a student would take a measured scoop and fill a plastic bag. The bag would travel down the table, each student performing a different task until it reached the end where students like Gavin Cloke and Teague Halawith would seal the meals and place them into another five-gallon bucket.
?I?m happy to know I?m helping,? Ensminger said of the event. Halawith said it felt really good to be doing something for others.
Once the bucket at the end of the table was full, the students would cheer out and someone like Kyli Millard would pick up the meals and take them to the other side of the gym to be boxed up and placed on the pallet. Millard said what made getting out of class even better was knowing she and her friends were helping other students, just like them, in Texas. ?I like this, it?s really fun. And we get to help other kids,? she said.
The meals will be going to Vidor, Texas; a community roughly the size of Mt. Pleasant that was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. ?They?re still reeling from the hurricane,? Klopfenstein said. ?60 percent of their (residents) still live in FEMA trailers and their school lunch (program) is in debt $15,000.?
Klopfenstein said he and his co-captain for the project, Kendra Rushell, wanted to do something local, but knowing there were students, just like the kids they work with every day in Mt. Pleasant, unsure where their next meal was coming from meant it was an easy decision on where to send the meals. ?In a dream world some of the kids could go with the food and see how the food impacts (the residents),? he said. But this year the goal is to get some video footage of distributing the meals into the school. ?Hopefully we can bring that back and show the kids how happy they made the people and how much they affected their lives.?
Meg Richtman, vice president for strategic initiatives at Iowa Weslyan University, said she hopes the students not only realize the impact they?re going to have on the lives of those who receive the meals, but also the impact generosity can have on their own lives. ?Hopefully this will instill in them the purpose of why we give back and why we think of others first.?
Students and staff from IW were volunteering alongside the middle school students on Wednesday. Klopfenstein said more than 200 community members had signed up to volunteer over the three-day event.
This was the second year the middle school partnered with Take Away Hunger for a meal packaging event. Last year the students prepared 102,000 meals that went to Guatemala. Klopfenstein said he felt 125,000 meals was a reasonable growth for the project.
Not only will students be participating in packaging meals, but they will be paying it forward in their own communities. Each day a grade level will work in the gym packaging food. But the lesson doesn?t end there. Klopfenstein said when the students aren?t in the gym they will still be learning that not all of life lessons happen in the classroom.
One day students will watch the 1990s film, ?Pay It Forward? and their afternoon will have curriculum around that theme. Another day students will go out into the community and get their hands dirty. ?We?re calling it ?paying it forward at home,?? he said. ?The entire grade level will be out in the community, picking up trash or sticks.?
Klopfenstein hopes this event will not only become an annual event, but something Mt. Pleasant is known for. ?When I go out into the state of Iowa and I say I?m from Mt. Pleasant they say, ?yeah, the steam engines.? Wouldn?t it be cool when these kids go to college if they say they?re from Mt. Pleasant they say, ?you?re from that place that packages all of those meals.? I think it would be an awesome claim to fame beside Old Threshers.?
Klopfenstein says in order to turn this event into a tradition it?s going to take financial help from the community. ?We?re going to get better with fundraising ahead of time, but we?re going to need help,? he said. Each meal costs 25-cents to make. Take that times 125,000 and it runs over $30,000 just to prepare the meals.
By 2 p.m., just an hour into the first day of meal packaging, the sixth-graders had prepared over 10,000 meals. A few minutes later, Klopfenstein paused the music and grabbed a microphone. ?We have filled our first pallet, guys. That?s 11,880 meals.?
The gym roared with cheers and applause. Then the music and laughter returned. They were on to fill the next pallet.
Mariah Jack said she felt really bad for those living on the coast when the hurricanes struck. ?I felt bad because we?re more inland and we don?t have to deal with that kind of stuff,? she said. ?But it?s kind of easier to understand what they?re going through when you?re helping them. I?m glad we?re helping them.?
If Jack could send a message along with one of the 11,880 meals she and her peers had packaged in the first hour, it would be this: ?I hope you have an awesome day and we know you?re going to get through this.?