By Audrey Hahn, 15, Cleveland HS (Reseda)
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Audrey likes that she can also help close to home by volunteeering with her church to feed the homeless.

Last April, my church friend, Amanda, invited me to join her on a trip to rural central California to work on a food assembly line. The destination was Gleanings, a nonprofit organization that creates and packages food for poor communities all over the world. You might think that’s the last way I’d want to spend a week of summer vacation, but I was ecstatic!

Ever since I was a little kid, I would be nearly in tears whenever there was a “help the hungry” commercial on TV. My family was already sending money to support a teenage boy in the Dominican Republic and a little girl in Guatemala. I was concerned about the other kids in the world and last spring I even gave a speech in school about world hunger. I shared that 9 million people die each year from malnutrition and hunger. Of that 9 million, 5 million of them are children. I declared, “We must take action!” I wanted to help those poor families but I never knew how. Now I had the chance.

At Gleanings, volunteers spend a week drying peaches and packing soup mixes to send to hungry families in 40 countries like South Africa, Guatemala and North Korea. Amanda had volunteered at Gleanings for the past four years, and since we attended the same church, she would always talk about her trips there.

My mom decided to volunteer too and I was excited and nervous about the week-long trip. In the car on the way to Gleanings, I wondered, would Amanda’s friends like me? Would the people there make me work until I can’t move another muscle? Was the food we packaged really going to reach people around the  world?

I looked through the car window and saw countless rows of corn, peach trees and apple trees. Finally, after a nearly four-hour trip, we arrived in a town called Dinuba. Gleanings had an outdoor food assembly line with a roof, a building where soup mix is made, cabin-like dorms, a dining hall and mobile homes where the permanent staff lived.

Audrey (left) carries a wooden slab filled with dried peaches that were sent to poor countries to help the hungry.

Photo by Dorothy Yamaguchi, 13, homeschooled

We worked all day

More than 150 people volunteered during the week we were there. The daily schedule was organized: 6:30 a.m. wake up, 7:30 breakfast, and by around 8:30, we started the work. There was one 15-minute break between lunch and dinner, and work ended around 5:30.

I spent most of my time working at the peach assembly line. The loud screeching of the assembly line machine sounded like metal rubbing together. The commands from Fritz, the man in charge at the assembly line, were even louder. We patiently waited for him to call out “Break time!” I was thankful there was a roof over the line. Outside, the heat reached 100 degrees, but under the roof it was cooler.

At the assembly line there were six stations. The first station was called inspection. We would look over the peaches on the conveyor belt, taking out the bruised peaches and dropping them in the trash. It was one of the best jobs because the line moved slower than at other stations and sometimes it would stop so the peaches wouldn’t get backed up. Once, our friend picked up a bad peach and tossed it to Amanda and then she threw it to me. At first we were playing catch nicely, but then he started throwing several peaches and aiming at our faces and arms. We were angry, but then we thought it was funny. I ended up hitting him in the face. Jackpot!

Then there were stations where the peaches were cut and the cores were removed. After the coring station, the peaches would roll down onto square wooden boards. We would spread out the peaches and flip them so that the insides of the peaches were facing up so they wouldn’t stick to the wood while drying. The peaches were mushy and sticky and hard to hold on to, like a wet bar of soap.

We were working so fast I was sweating even though I was right next to a huge fan. I worried that my sweat would drip onto the peaches. Yuck. On top of that, I got splinters every 10 minutes. I used about 25 Band-Aids and I visited the first-aid room so often that the nurse knew my name. Even though I’d get tired, I’d remember what the purpose of being there was. I was doing something that would feed hungry people.

I also helped package dry soup mix. The soup mix building was much more laid back because there were no machines and it was air-conditioned. The smell of garlic was so strong that whenever I went on break from the soup mix station, everyone near me would know without asking where I’d worked. Here, we scooped the soup mix that had already been made by the staff members into large Ziploc bags. The bags had to be air-tight. I’d lean on the bags and pat them to get the air out. One time, my friend sat on a bag, assuming that this would help squeeze the air out. Instead, the bag busted open and the soup mix shot everywhere.

Thousands of people would eat the food we made

After drying for a week or so, the peaches would be ready. By the end of the week our group had prepared 38,000 pounds of peaches. I helped make 1 million servings of food for the hungry. I didn’t think our small group could do so much in a week. It felt good to be part of that.

On the last day, I wished it wasn’t over. On my trip back home, I think I told my mom about 10 times that I wanted to return. She yelled back, “OK! I heard you Audrey. Haha! It’s clear that someone in this car enjoyed this trip.”

I don’t watch those world hunger commercials with a sense of helplessness anymore. And I don’t complain about what we’re having for dinner. Whether it’s my least favorite vegetable soup or a tasteless salad, I learned to appreciate what I have. I live in a comfortable home with running water and a refrigerator that is always packed. What more could I ask for when miles from me, a girl my age would do anything to eat a small bowl of that vegetable soup or salad?