CHAMPAIGN — Hundreds of volunteers from throughout the area whooped, jumped in the air and cheered Sunday afternoon as they finished packing more than a million meals bound for earthquake victims in Haiti.
“This has been a blast,” said Trevor Unzicker, 18, of Fisher. “It’s awesome for us to get a chance to do something hands on to help our fellow human beings.”
Unzicker was one of more than 20 Fisher High School students who traveled to Champaign on Sunday to help fill bags with rice, beans, soy and protein for the needy as they listened to music from Haiti.
The volunteers working around 51 tables in the former Hobby Lobby on Glenn Park Drive reached the million-meal milestone at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, reaching the group’s goal ahead of schedule. The total time to pack them was 11 1/2 hours.
Kris Fuqua, administrator of the Salvation Army of Champaign County, said a total of 1,012,640 meals were packaged by 5,119 volunteers from Champaign County and neighboring counties on Saturday and Sunday.
“Everybody I have talked to has told me they had a great time,” Fuqua said. “You can feel the energy throughout the building. It’s truly a modern day miracle.”
Volunteer coordinator Jerry Geren said the turnout of volunteers dwarfed the numbers for similar events in larger cities across the country.
“San Francisco could only get a couple thousand volunteers, and they had a difficult time making it to a million meals,” Geren said. “This community has been able to do it in a faster period of time.”
Jerry Zachary, a member of the Salvation Army board, said he thought the turnout was overwhelming.
“People have come excited because they know this food is going to somebody in need,” Zachary said. “This is different from putting your money in a collection plate.”
Kansas-based Numana teamed up with the Salvation Army of Champaign County and the University of Illinois Interfaith in Action group to make this weekend’s event possible.
Fuqua said the meals will be shipped on Monday by truck to Miami, where the boxes of food will be placed on a boat headed for Haiti. The meals will then be distributed within the next week or so.
“We’re not just giving free food away; we’re saving lives,” Fuqua said.
Kristen Banas of Champaign spent the afternoon pouring rice into packages.
“I usually help out at the Wesley Food Pantry, and they sent an e-mail out to all their volunteers,” Banas said. “It’s very rewarding helping out people who are starving.”
Melanie Starke of Champaign kept herself busy sealing boxes filled with food.
“We’re all God’s children, and we have to help one another,” Starke said. “If we don’t help one another, everybody falls apart.”
“It’s a good feeling doing something to feed the hungry,” said UI sophomore Lisa White of Bloomington, who joined 20 members of her Delta Zeta sorority working together at the event.
The Urbana High School varsity and junior varsity baseball teams donned their baseball caps as they took time out from the ball diamond to pack meals bound for Haiti.
“We wanted to be a little more involved in the community,” said Urbana JV Coach Patrick Zimmerly. “Doing something like this absolutely helps to encourage teamwork.”
The Rev. Jeff Trask led members of his church, the New Covenant Fellowship, putting together meals for Haitians.
“Our church is really strong in terms of mission, mercy and justice, and we wanted to come out and do our share,” Trask said. “Our Bible says we should love our neighbors, and loving our neighbors includes making sure they aren’t hungry.”
Carlee Wittig, 13, of Monticello and her friends from the Sangamon Valley Clovers 4-H Club poured vegetables into bags for the needy.
“This has been a lot of fun,” Wittig said.
Alex Jean-Charles, a UI education student from Haiti, said he was touched by the support shown for the people of his island country.
“My cousin broke his leg during the earthquake, and I have cousins who have been living in tents since the earthquake,” Jean-Charles said. “Seeing all this love and affection for my country has been overwhelming.”
Claire Dietrich, 12, of Urbana drew pictures of dogs, cats and horses on the boxes of meals produced by her table.
“I thought this would be a good way to cheer up the children of Haiti,” she said.
“I don’t think there is anything more worthwhile than doing this,” said UI student Kevin Pelczarski, who packed meals together with other members of the Chi Phi fraternity.
“When we took this challenge on five weeks ago, I thought there was no way we could come near these numbers,” said Salvation Army board member Steve Hamburg. “But the outpouring of affection from our community and the surrounding areas made this a pleasant and fun reality.”