Volunteers give up their Saturday to fill food boxes

CHAMPAIGN — Every 20 seconds or so, a loud "Whoo!" came from one table or another as a small city of volunteers filled food boxes Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Amid rock music and raucous laughter, volunteers of all ages in the west hallway of the stadium talked while working toward packaging 147,000 meals to be distributed by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank in Urbana.

It was Community and Campus Day of Service at the University of Illinois, coordinated by the Urbana campus and Illini Fighting Hunger, a student-founded group.

About 1,400 people signed up for volunteer day. Sarah Zehr, the director of operations for the UI's Office of Public Engagement, said, "I honestly can't tell you how many people showed up" for the event.

"It's amazing to see the turnout," she added. "It's great. We want to get people into the habit of volunteering."

Row after row of tables were filled by volunteer groups and individuals in color-coded hairnets that indicated what time groups started work.

At a table of volunteers from the Muslim American Society in Urbana, women didn't need hairnets because their heads were already covered.

Rola Abudayeh, 11, of Catlin was helping measure out ingredients for the packages.

"I want to help the poor," she said.

The meal is a chicken-flavored rice casserole with its soy component donated by Decatur's Archer Daniels Midland, in the form of textured vegetable protein.

Across the table from Abudayeh, Aayia Bzami, 11, of Champaign was measuring out spoonfuls of dehydrated chicken broth and "making new friends," she said.

The social element is evident to Illini Fighting Hunger co-founder Gregory Damhorst, a medical student who's also earning a doctorate in bioengineering when he's not organizing food for Haiti or closer to home.

Damhorst said his group working with volunteers has prepared 676,694 meals since its founding just two years ago.

Damhorst had been working with other groups but found their overhead to be too high.

With groups that had major administration costs, Damhorst said, meals cost about 25 cents each. Illini Fighting Hunger got it down to 13 cents, and with the donated soy, he said a 10- to 11-cent cost was workable.

Volunteer enthusiasm was evident at a table that included the Goodner family of Oakwood. Near his parents and brother, Travis Goodner, 10, was heat-sealing plastic packages, a last step toward getting them in the boxes.

He "liked all of it" going on in the hallway, which whooshed a collective "Whoo!" as the 105,000 level was reached.

But it's practical experience for Lun Ou, a junior in international trade, policy and development who is a leader in Illini Fighting Hunger.

"I want to help to reduce world hunger," said Ou, who came here from China at 16 and has volunteered and done internships all over the world.

By the numbers

According to a running total at illinifightinghunger.org, Illini Fighting Hunger, a UI student group, has:

— Coordinated 4,068 volunteers.

— Conducted 7,711 hours of public service.

— Used 29,627 pounds of rice, 2,100 pounds of pasta and 8,100 pounds of beans.

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