Hunger is something that happens to other people in other places, or so it is often be assumed. With the economic hardships of recent times, record unemployment and dangerous weather that is becoming startlingly more common than not, the subject of hunger is becoming something that can’t be ignored.
It might have come as a great shock to passers-by of the Christ Episcopal Church, Kings Highway, on Friday to see a shanty town built on the lawn: a row of makeshift dwellings built out of cardboard boxes and a sole pup-tent in the middle.
The effort is part of the outreach of World Vision, an organization devoted to confronting world hunger. The 30-Hour Famine program finds youth groups from churches across the country experiencing a day-and-six-hours in the shoes of the homeless, and instills in the participants a firsthand realization of what going without food or shelter really means.
This is the fourth year that the parish has participated in the challenge. George A. Reiner, a volunteer youth leader with the Rite13 group (11-13 year olds) for Christ Episcopal Church, explained what the kids involved were doing. "We have about twenty eight kids that are going on a hunger fast for thirty hours to raise money for world hunger," Reiner said. "They get people from the parish to sponsor them, and we have two churches (represented) here – Christ Church here in Middletown, and Christ Church in New Brunswick.”
"The kids had their last meal at lunch (on Friday, April 29) and they’re on a juice fast, so they get juice or water, but nothing else until this evening." he explained. The fast is broken twice during the weekend, at Saturday’s dinner and Sunday after services. "Last night, they had the cardboard village to experience homelessness," Reiner said.
The conditions for the outdoor portion of the event were as good as could be hoped for, taking into account what it was representing. "It was a little cloudy, it got kind of cool, but everyone stayed outside," Reiner added. "The kids built their own cardboard village; and we had some families from the church donate cardboard, and some recycled stuff that we picked up in planning during the course of the year."
On Saturday morning the youth took part in a Grocery Store Challenge to purchase food for local food banks. The Challenge had the participants shopping for food from local grocery stores, with an emphasis on dietary staples with a stable shelf-life.
"The Calico Cat Thrift Shop, next door to the Church, and most likely the kitchen at St. Mark’s in Keansburg, will be the beneficiaries of the Challenge," Reiner said. "Families can go there and sign up. There are some basic-needs testing that goes on, but they can get for that would supplement food stamps, and things like that."
Julia der Bedrosian, from Christ Church in New Brunswick said, "Some of the activities they’ve done today with purchasing food is to understand the purchasing power of how far money can go. That food then gets donated (to the local food banks)."
At noon, the participants joined with adults from the parish and with partner organization Stop Hunger Now to assemble 5,000 emergency meals that would be shipped to disaster areas. All involved donned hair nets and gloves, and stood at stations in the Church’s all-purpose room with pots of various cereal products.
Portions of different cereals, mostly made up of wheat flakes and bran, for nutritional value, were funneled into air-tight packages, weighed, sealed and brought to the talley counter der Bedrosian was overseeing. The activity was presented much like a "beat the clock" challenge versus a dry, somber effort.
All involved recognized the humanitarian element, but the situation was offered in a manner of fun, with positive-message music like Sheryl Crow’s "Soak Up The Sun" and Rush’s "The Spirit Of Radio" pumping from an iPhone into a loudspeaker.
The recent devastating tornados in Alabama made the emergency rations that much more crucial; and the members of both churches made sure that their work would go where it would be the most useful.
"We definitely encourage people to be aware of situations such as Haiti, Central America as well as Alabama, where this food is going today," der Bedrosian said. "We’re redirecting our efforts (toward Alabama) to make sure we’re helping those who are closet to us in times of crisis and need."
"My friend invited me to do this. It sounded like fun," said Mark Robinson, of Manalapan, one of the youth participants. While Robinson was game for the challenge, there were aspects he was not expecting. "The overnight outdoor portion was) harder than I thought," he said. "It gives you a lot of perspective.”
"Stop Hunger Now offers the same program for people who are outside of this event, so you can actually have them come to your event and do this. We also encourage people to donate to local food pantries, which both (of our) churches have," der Bedrosian said.
World Vision is an international Christian relief organization aimed at the needs of children all around the globe. "They go into a community that’s really impoverished and in dire straits, and makes sure they are fed and that they get educational services, and works to get the community back up and running," said Reiner.
By the end of the experience, the youth members who participated said they had a deeper recognition of the struggle of poverty, what it feels like to go hungry and homeless (albeit in a controlled situation), and how individuals could actually make a difference to alleviate some of these dire needs.
It’s a lesson the organizers hope the children can take with them and share among others, if only to further the understanding that life can be very difficult beyond the borders of a relatively stable suburbia.
For more information, visit WorldVision.org for more details, child and community sponsorship and other details concerning hunger outreach. Events can be organized with Stop Hunger Now via their website: stophungernow.org