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Article updated: 11/14/2012 7:17 PM

Feed My Starving Children opens center in Libertyville

By Mick Zawislak

Hair nets were in vogue -- as was a sense of camaraderie and fulfillment -- as scores of volunteers Wednesday packed food for starving children at the opening of a major relief operation in Libertyville.

About 150 volunteers, including church members and village officials, cheerfully scooped and weighed four essential ingredients, filled "Manna Packs" and sealed them for delivery to Haiti during the inaugural session of what will be Feed My Starving Children's largest Chicago area operation.

"The need is huge. I was born in Haiti and I know what hunger feels like," Junior Obrand, food aid coordinator for the Minneapolis-based Christian nonprofit, said over the din of a packing session at full-bore.

"This is the first day. Over the next two weeks, we'll package 272,000 meals," said Mark Crea, the organization's executive director and CEO. "By the end of December (the food) will be in Haiti."

The charitable organization operates six other packing sites, including a full-time operation in Aurora and part-time center in Schaumburg. It expects to exceed its 2012 goal of distributing 153 million meals to orphanages, schools, and clinics and other facilities in 70 countries worldwide.

That makes the 18,000-square-foot Libertyville facility, situated in the back portion of a business park at 742 E. Park Ave. (Route 176) east of downtown, an important cog in the Chicago area operation.

The "super site" wasn't planned to open full time until May, but response from churches, businesses, civic organizations and others accelerated the timetable, according to Crea.

"This site by itself has the ability to double what we're doing in Chicago," he said. "This site alone can feed about 90,000 kids a day, every day, going forward."

The Libertyville site was opened as part of a plan to double the organization's overall production within two years. It will have a capacity of 50 million meals when it increases from three to six days a week early next year, according to Crea. With the addition of Libertyville, production in the suburban facilities is expected to reach 71 million meals annually.

The facility represents a $1.55 million investment in rent, building, equipment, salaries and other costs for the organization, which survives on donations and volunteer labor. It receives no government aid.

Feed My Starving Children's arrival in Lake County was sparked in large part by the Rev. Bob Davis, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Libertyville. Davis estimated that 16,000 volunteers packed about 3.3 million meals in the four years since he organized an annual packing session. That interest and support prompted him to urge the organization to consider a permanent site in Lake County.

"People have an experience and they tell 10 of their friends or 20 of their friends," Davis said. "You pack the meals, but you're really packing hope."

The ingredients -- vitamin-fortified chicken seasoning, vegetables, soy, and rice -- are delivered in bulk. They are combined in a single package weighing between 380 to 400 grams, which later is cooked in boiling water as the only meal of the day for many of its recipients.

"It's a powerful experience for volunteers. They'll want to come back," Crea said.

Dee Dee Estes, executive director of the children's ministry for The Chapel, brought her 7-year-old twin son and daughter along as part of a group of volunteers from that church. It was the first time packing for all three.

"They serve at church and wanted to serve here," she said. "You know you're making an impact, that food is going to end up in a starving kid's hands."

The official Libertyville grand opening is Saturday, with two-hour packing sessions between 9 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Visit fmsc.org/volunteer to register for sessions in Libertyville or elsewhere.

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