Roman Catholic bishops convening in Baltimore joined students and volunteers Sunday to transform a Harbor East hotel corridor into a food-packing operation to benefit West African orphans and battered women.
Measuring out thousands of plastic bags of dry soy protein, rice, vitamins and dried vegetables, enough to feed six people, the volunteers worked alongside the humanitarian effort's sponsors, Catholic Relief Services and Stop Hunger Now, as well as the bishops.
"This is so much more fun than sitting in meetings," said Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., who is also Catholic Relief Services board chairman. "And it's probably more meaningful, too. And, by the way, it's great to see so many young people come out for an event like this."
The bishops, meeting in Baltimore for an annual Fall General Assembly, relinquished their traditional miters and wore protective shower-cap-like headgear as they scooped out the rice into the smaller containers.
By the end of Sunday, thousands of meals stacked in the corridor of the Marriott Waterfront Hotel were in boxes ready for shipment to West Africa's Burkina Faso, a landlocked nation of 15 million people.
Organizers of the event identified the country as one in need of additional food supplies.
Joshua Poole, a Catholic Relief Services employee who lives in Glen Burnie but spends most of his time in Africa, lifted 50-pound rice bags throughout the day to volunteers who portioned them into more manageable meals.
"There's an incredible need in the Sahel, a desert-type region of West Africa," Poole said. "The food will go schools offering feeding and to social protection agencies that care for orphans, battered women and women who escaped forced marriages, often at a very young age."
Poole, who is in the U.S. on a temporary basis, had been in the Peace Corps and stationed in Madagascar before joining Catholic Relief Services and taking an assignment in Burkina Faso, a nation once known as the Republic of Upper Volta.
"I was hiking the Appalachian Trail 12 years ago and had an epiphany," Poole said of his decision to work overseas. "It's worth it just to see the smiles on the people's faces. Yet there are challenges. Just taking the food out to the villages can be an enormous challenge. The roads are bad by U.S. standards, and the engines in the trucks are not always dependable."
Poole said his experience in Burkina Faso has been similar to the time he spent in Madagascar.
"As poor as the people are, when they see you are a visitor, whatever they have, they will share," he said. "I have been told, 'I only have a grasshopper, but you can have half.' When I come back to the U.S., I am always struck by the amount of food that is wasted here."
Poole said a diet in Burkina Faso would include dried peas and grains. When food from the U.S. arrives, he said, residents are appreciative and often donate the firewood for its preparation.
The food cartons often go to small service organizations run by religious communities that have orphanages or places of safety for 14-year-old girls who have fled arranged marriages with older men. Poole said the safety providers could be parishes or small shelters run by a nun or a brother.
Also participating in the effort to bring food to Burkina Faso was Stop Hunger Now, a nondenominational group sponsored by Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus, among others.
Bishop John Ricard, who served in Baltimore nearly 20 years ago and was later assigned to Pensacola, Fla., worked alongside students from local schools.
"There is so much malnutrition," he said as he stood at a table and distributed the dried foods.
By the end of the afternoon, 30,036 meals had been prepared for shipment by boat to Africa, said Susan Gossling Walters, speaking for Catholic Relief Services.
Three Maryvale School students, Jasmine Brown, a junior; Angela Moore, a sophomore; and Brianna Cimino, a freshman, worked alongside one another as part of their work in a school-sponsored social justice coalition.
"Why would you not want to help at an event like this?" said Brown, who lives in Northeast Baltimore.