by Mike Marvin
Each November, for the past 17 years, two familiar voices in our community are heard on the radio promoting the annual “Clare House Food Drive.” They are Tina Sipula, founder of Clare House and Dan O’Brien, owner of Extreme Motors. This ‘five-week’ annual event provides the lion’s share of food distributed, throughout the year at Clare House, to the neediest residents of this community. At some point in the radio interview, Tina says, “…if you wish to learn more or get involved, call 829-1518.” That’s my phone number!
The annual Clare House Food Drive involves a significant number of people, more than you might imagine! Most of them work behind the scenes. I actually became involved about 4 years ago, when in this very newsletter Tina was looking for someone to take over the responsibility of coordinating volunteers. Something compelled me to contact her and find out more about this aspect of the food drive and at the end of our conversation, I agreed to take it on.
I learned that everything collected, at Schnucks and other locales, is brought weekly to a local warehouse in huge, oversized containers called ‘gaylords.’ What’s a Gaylord, you ask? Essentially, it is a very large corrugated cardboard box. They are square and some stand almost five feet high. (As we get nearer the bottom, young children will actually climb into them to hand the bags of food out to others.) Every item must be sorted into different categories and packed into specially sized boxes. These boxes are then stacked in groups of thirty-six, palletized, and taken to a different warehouse to be stored until needed at Clare House. I didn’t truly comprehend, at the time, how all of that was accomplished. But, I was about to.
The area of the warehouse where the sorting is done consists simply of several “cafeteria style” tables and a skate wheel conveyor. There are two tables per category; each labeled with one of nine different categories. The categories are Cereal, Fruit, Protein, Pasta, Soup, Vegetables, Paper, Baby, and Miscellaneous. The conveyor runs down the middle of the area, with the tables lined up on both sides and the huge gaylords outside of them. Food is taken from the gaylords and placed on the appropriate table. Like items are boxed, placed on the conveyor, and slid to one end of the area to be stacked.
On any of the designated evening, 70 to 80 volunteers come to do the sorting and boxing. People of all ages; individuals, couples, friends, high school and college students, business, social, fraternal, prayer, athletic, and scouting groups, even entire families come to help.
Some of the volunteers (sorters) remove random bags of groceries from the gaylords, separating them by category, and placing individual items on the appropriate tables. At each table other volunteers (boxers) fill, label, and seal the boxes. Then they slide them down the conveyor. At the end of the conveyor, other volunteers build the stacks.
The area where the work takes place is about the size of a three car garage. The tables are inches away from the conveyor, and the gaylords that surround the area are no more than ten to twelve feet away from the tables. Now, place eighty people into that mix and it becomes extremely congested. Then consider that almost everyone is moving constantly back and forth, each with a different destination. You frequently will hear someone say “excuse or pardon me.” But you also hear laughter and see a lot of smiles. When I step back occasionally and watch for a moment, it looks somewhat like a dance or ballet, but at the tempo of “river dance” without the discipline or precision. In truth, it probably more closely resembles a “swarm of bees.” This is why I refer to it as organized chaos! But in this instance, it is good chaos, because it serves a greater purpose. Each gaylord will generate 1.5 to 2 pallets of sorted food. Volunteers assemble, on average, 525 to 550 boxes of sorted food per night. At 36 boxes per pallet, that comes out to between 14 to 15 pallets per night. The last three food drives have generated 100 or more pallets of food each year.
You may wonder how much time it takes to do all this. Actually, it is slightly less than an hour on most evenings; and that is because of the dedication and determination of our volunteers. This has been the most inspiring thing for me. Not how so much is accomplished in so little time, but that there are so many generous people in this community who volunteer their time, year after year, to help in this worthy undertaking.
And that, in a nutshell, is the real story! It is the story of people giving of themselves, asking for nothing and expecting nothing in return. Simply being a part of something important, worthwhile and necessary. I take no credit for this, because it is not the result of anything I do. I will let you in on a secret. I simply pray and ask God to provide those needed to get the work at hand accomplished each night, and He has never failed to answer that prayer and never will. At the conclusion of each evening, I thank the volunteers for being such an important part of this good work. As I do this, I feel very humbled and thankful to Our Lord for bringing these wonderful people together in this essential work for Clare House. For they are truly doing God’s work! “… and they will ask, When did I see you hungry Lord and feed you?” And He will remember!