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Volunteers honor King's legacy with Utah Food Bank service

Published January 21, 2014 10:25 am

Pantry, which distributed over 28M meals last fiscal year, is abuzz on holiday.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It sounded like somebody threw a dozen golf balls into an industrial dryer and replayed it at quarter-speed — a Foley artist's take on 1,100 coconuts landing on 1,100 heads.

On Monday, that was the sound of progress.

More than 100 volunteers from Juan Diego Catholic High School, YouthCity, AmeriCorps, Salt Lake Community College's Asian Student Association and Wells Fargo toiled through the morning at the Utah Food Bank to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and help feed those in need.

First they received a pep talk from Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker: Demand for food is now twice what it was when the Great Recession began, he said, and contributions are not keeping pace. The students were then divvied into groups by food bank volunteer manager Sean Martin and encouraged to forge new friendships in the spirit of King. The vast majority headed down to the warehouse, where 1,100 blue and black donation drums awaited a face-lift after holiday wear and tear.

Most of the volunteers were children or young adults, and a few were eye-level with the lids of the 55-gallon barrels. All business, they improvised a fire brigade-style method of cleaning the barrels and passing them down the aisles and up the stairs into what Martin dubbed "Barrel land."

"There's no way our staff could do this," Martin said. "It would take a week."

Juan Diego senior Aaron Jeffers quickly developed a skill for sliding the just-washed barrels 15 yards down the line without tipping them over. He had already finished the 25-hour service commitment required of each Juan Diego student each year, but after learning that thousands of Granite School District students cannot afford to eat outside of school, he said the call to serve is ongoing.

"Just that number alone is astounding," he said.

Juan Diego senior Shan Chen says people "tend to ignore [hunger] because they've never been in that situation before. People sometimes forget that there is still a dark side to this world. Or maybe they saw it but they were like, 'What can I do?' "

Monday marked the 13th straight Martin Luther King Jr. Day that the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office has teamed with the Utah Food Bank to help provide Utahns with a way to improve the lives of others.

"You guys blasted through the barrels," Martin told the volunteers, back from a hand-washing break. Their reward? The chance to box up some grapefruit juice.

Another group on Monday delivered boxes of food. Volunteers from Wells Fargo filled boxes on assembly line rollers amid chatter, laughter and clinking cans. For a personal touch, a fourth small group used crayons to gussy up boxes that would be delivered to elderly couples.

State Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, was joined by her son, Pedensio Cordero, as well as Salt Lake City Council member Erin Mendenhall and her two young boys. Romero helped then-Mayor Rocky Anderson kick off the program 13 years ago and has done it every year since with Pedensio, now a 17-year-old senior at Judge Memorial Catholic High School.

"It's grown tremendously," Romero said. The first year, she said, they delivered about 100 boxes to elderly couples. "The whole goal is for it to be a day on versus a day off."

Salt Lake Community College's Asian Student Association tries to do at least one service project each month, but this was their first time working with the Utah Food Bank. While he worked up a sweat corralling armfuls of barrels toward the mouth of the stairwell, SLCC sophomore Matthew Wong was asked why he'd do this rather than, say, sleeping in and watching a movie.

"I really don't have a profound answer besides helping out the community, just trying to help out a fellow human being," he said. "Knowing that my time spent here is going to help out somebody less fortunate."

SLCC Asian Student Association president Vu Tran said it doesn't feel like giving up a holiday, but rather, celebrating it appropriately.

"Seeing everybody here mingling and socializing, everybody's diverse, everybody has different cultures and we come from different backgrounds," he said. "I feel like the spirit of Martin Luther King is here. That's what he fought for."

The Utah Food Bank is at 3150 S. 900 West. According to a news release from the Mayor's Office, the Utah Food Bank distributed food for more than 28 million meals in the last fiscal year.

AmeriCorps volunteer Bree Bothast, who works with case managers to help the chronically homeless find housing, said many charity volunteers crave the face-to-face contact with the people they're helping, and that's what makes work at places like the Utah Food Bank so valuable.

"A lot of people don't realize the behind-the-scenes things that need to happen to serve all the populations that really need help," she said. "I think a lot of people would not, when they think of volunteering, they would not think about coming to a warehouse."

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper