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Haiti tragedy serves as inspiration

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Haiti is located less than 700 miles from the sandy luxury of Miami Beach.

And yet the stark differences between the two places can only be measured in lightyears.

Almost the entire Haitian nation lives in poverty. In January, a group of Morris residents traveled to Haiti and visited an orphanage that is home to about 100 children. They hadn't eaten in a week.

"You can hear about it and be moved, but once you see it, you cannot not do something," said one of the travelers, Margaret Payne. "It shocks you into a reality that the people there just exist. They're not living."

The grim experience led the group to organize a community event in which volunteers will spend three days packaging 140,000 meals for starving people around the world, including those they met in Haiti.

Morris Evangelical Free Church and the Twin Cities-based Feed My Starving Children are sponsoring the event and seeking volunteers to help man shifts to pack the food Aug. 21-23 at the Morris Area High School.

Volunteers can be third-grade age and older, and those interested need to call Payne at (320) 589-2808 to register. Individual volunteers, families and groups are encouraged to participate, she said.

Founded in 1987, Feed My Starving Children has packing facilities in the Twin Cities, and also brings a mobile packing unit to communities. FMSC has sent meals to more than 50 countries, and in 2007 shipped 43 million meals with the help of 185,000 volunteers.

Morris Evangelical Free Church has led a community fundraising effort that has almost gathered the $21,800 needed to produce the meals.

Area churches and school groups already have committed volunteers to the effort, and the group is seeking more to work two shifts on Aug. 21, four shifts on Aug. 22, and three more shifts on Aug. 23.

The assembly line-type effort requires 75 volunteers per two-hour shift. People can commit to working more than one of the nine total shifts, said organizer Tamela Sperr.

The meals consist of rice, high-protein soy nuggets, a chicken-flavored vegetarian mix of vitamins and minerals, and dehydrated vegetables. The meals cost 17 cents apiece and are prepared by adding boiling water.

Once the meals are packed, the E-Free Church, and FMSC will also work with the organizations Love A Child and Jesus in Haiti to send a share of the meals to the Haiti, Payne said.

Haitians can't buy adequate food because of the high cost. Even if a child receives hospital care, the facility can't afford to feed them -- children could starve lying in a hospital, Payne said.

Aid groups in Haiti take in children in need, but even the orphanages can only afford to feed them once per day. And that's after school, so children are taught in archaic schools on empty stomachs.

Other people, including children, live near dumps and scrounge for food, and a lack of clean water is a serious problem.

"People there don't even make enough to feed themselves," Sperr said. "They just live day-to-day; eat day-to-day. This (event) is a small thing we can do to get food over there."

On earlier trips, members of the Morris-area group helped clean up an outdoor "kitchen" area at the orphanage and bought new mattresses to replace dirty, infested pads. Children mostly sleep three to a bed.

The group also arranged to have clean water shipped in regularly to help in the battle against dehydration in a region where temperatures can reach 130 degrees, Payne said.

"For people who have never seen abject poverty, people with nothing, it's a tough concept to get your head around," Payne said. "When you hear it said that people have nothing, you think, 'Well, they have nothing here, but they have food at home and clothes in the closet. But these people have nothing."

The E-Free Church contingent is planning another trip in the future, and the Sperrs, Don and Tamela, fell in love with a 10-year-old Haitian girl living in the orphanage and they are working to adopt her.

"Seeing it definitely touches people," Tamela said. "We have no idea how fortunate we are. We have so much and these people have nothing. Seventeen cents is a small price to pay to help."