Meals to feed youth in Haiti

EL DORADO — Sonya Atencio jumped as a loud gong sounded again Tuesday in the El Dorado Civic Center.

"It always scares me," she said, laughing.

The gong, which went off about every eight minutes, signaled that another 5,000 meals had been packaged for children in Haiti.

Atencio, along with hundreds of others, was volunteering at the Numana Food Packaging Event for Haiti.

The event, which also runs today from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., was put together by Numana Inc., a nonprofit organization that fights world hunger. About 1,500 volunteers will gather during the two days to package 285,120 meals for Haitian children, said Rick McNary, president and CEO of Numana.

As a volunteer, Atencio said she enjoyed being able to do something for starving children other than just sending money.

"If my children were in the same situation, I would do anything to feed my babies — anything," said Atencio, a mother of two. Her children, ages 7 and 3, joined her at the event.

"And the fact that we're able to feed children in this way, in a very real way, there's no words that you could put to that."

In various assembly lines, volunteers packed rice, soy protein, freeze-dried vegetables and a tablet that contained 21 vitamins and minerals into each bag, which will be sent to school children in Balan, a village in Haiti.

Numana has joined with the Salvation Army to deliver the meals, which only need water to be prepared. The meals will be shipped in a 40-foot container and should reach the children by early February, McNary said.

Throughout the event, photos of the children from Balan, which McNary has visited twice, flashed on a screen while Haitian music played. He said the meals will not only alleviate hunger problems, but will also decrease child slavery because parents sell children when they are not able to feed them.

Because many volunteers were parents or children, they said the situation was more real for them. Nathan Chiles, 9, who was volunteering for the whole day, said he was upset by the actions of some Haitian parents.

"I'm glad I'm helping, but it makes me mad that they steal food, they give their kids away, and I'm just glad that we can be helping so they don't have to give their kids away," Nathan said.

Nathan, who was volunteering with his mother and two brothers, was one of many children working at the event.

Eight years ago, another child — a 5-year-old Nicaraguan girl — spurred McNary to create Numana, which is based out of El Dorado. When he was in Central America on a mission trip, the girl begged him for food. McNary said he decided then to dedicate his life to fighting hunger.

Tuesday marked Numana's debut packaging event, although children from Bluestem Elementary and Middle schools in Leon had a smaller event, packaging more than 16,000 meals.

Each meal costs Numana 30 cents to produce, which is raised from various people, churches and businesses. For this event, Numana raised $85,000, which McNary called "a miracle."

"You just don't do that in a depressed economy in a small town without wonderful people and divine favor," he said.