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On a mission

On a recent Sunday afternoon, South Medford High School senior Benjamin Hillen led a team of about a dozen fellow students knocking on doors in the neighborhood near the campus in an effort to recruit new donors to the Medford Food Project.

Hillen says it was “a trial run” for South Medford’s Student Hunger Strike Force team. Their mission is to recruit 150 to 160 new donors this year to the Food Project.

The Strike Force’s motto: “Spend an hour, feed a family.”

Approximately 1 in 7 Jackson County residents struggle with putting food on the table each year. That’s more than 30,000 hungry people; one-third of them children.

Since 2011, the Medford Food Project has collected more than one million pounds of food for 15 area food banks by enlisting 3,000 households in the Greater Medford area, including Jacksonville and Central Point, to donate a bag of nonperishable food every two months.

To sustain the effort, 600 new households are needed each year, says John Javna, founder of MFP.

South Medford is one of four area schools that have joined ranks with the Food Project — Jackson County’s largest all-volunteer organization. St. Mary’s students were recruited more than a year ago, and over the past several months North Medford and Cascade Christian have fallen in line.

Hillen was already committed to community service through his school’s Kiwanis-sponsored Key Club. The Student Hunger Strike Force, he says, is a “fantastic, phenomenal way to give to others less fortunate.”

Miranda Dufur, a North Medford High School senior who will turn 18 soon, says she felt “compelled to do more as an adult.”

“It’s time for me to do real-life things.”

Helping feed families and other students is an opportunity to be a part of the community on a larger scale, she says.

All four high schools have set a goal of at least 150 new donors by the end of the school year. In the next several weeks, teams from each school will be out canvassing neighborhoods or setting up tables outside grocery stores, libraries or participating merchants.

“Luckily, it’s pretty easy to get new donors,” says Javna. “People just have to be asked.”

It’s his hope that the students will help shore up the infrastructure of the organization that typically loses 15 to 20 percent of its donors each year.

“Engaging kids with the Food Project is good for them and good for us,” says Javna.

“It’s probably the most productive volunteer hour (or two) that a student could put in,” he adds.

Going door-to-door in teams of two, students average about three new donors per hour. Javna figures that 150 new donors will provide 6,000 more meals for hungry families.

The Strike Force is completely student-run, says Sophia Pastrano, a junior at St. Mary’s.

While Javna is the inspirational leader, the students make the decisions, she says, and do “the brunt of the work.”

Student leadership teams produced promotional videos over the summer and have created a website. They also give presentations on their respective campuses in an effort to generate excitement and enlist volunteers for the mission.

Recruits pick the date and time they want to volunteer; a leadership team provides reminders, training and supplies — maps of the houses to call on, scripts, handouts, sign-up sheets, etc.

The goal for each school is to have four student volunteers canvass and two volunteers table each month.

Plus twice a year, each school enlists 25 student volunteers for a citywide canvassing event called “60 Minutes against Hunger.”

Ethan McAnally, a junior at St. Mary’s, says he started with the Medford Food Project “a long time ago.”

As a third-grader he accompanied his mother who was a neighborhood coordinator. She supplied donors with the Food Project’s trademark green bag and then came back around on the second Saturday of every even month to pick up the bag of food. He saw the volume of food donated each time, and then saw the food bank wiped out by the next month.

Now that he’s older, he’s aware of the statistics.

“To see how many are suffering from hunger, it’s shocking,” he says.

With the Strike Force, the teenagers are “given real responsibility” to do something about it, he adds. “It’s exciting to have an opportunity … to be given an opportunity.”

McAnally’s sales pitch to potential volunteers and prospective donors includes the Food Project’s premise that there is “power in one green bag.”

“It’s a simple way to fight hunger,” he says. “It’s so crazy that it’s so simple.”

As each high school reaches its goal of 150 donors, the Blum Family Foundation will chip in $1,000 to the school’s “Sparrow” — a medically fragile child who has been adopted by the student body — and students devote community service hours raising funds to cover medical bills, etc.

Like McAnally’s mother, Pastrano’s parents were volunteers with the Medford Food Project, and as a middle-schooler she helped at a local food bank.

She likes to impress upon others the “moral obligation to help our neighbors.”

“You never know who’s going hungry. It could be a kid you sit next to in school or a next-door neighbor.”

Spending an hour to feed a family, she adds, “is an easy thing to do.”

— Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

South Medford High School students Cole Garske, left, and Manhua Xie canvas a Medford neighborhood for new Food Project donors. [Photo by Denise Baratta]
John Javna trains South Medford High School students to recruit new Medford Food Project donors. [Photo by Denise Baratta]