By B.C. Manion
It was hot and loud, but no one was complaining.
Indeed, hundreds of hands — in all shapes and sizes — were busy packing rice, soy powder, dried vegetables and dried vitamins into small plastic bags, destined to feed hungry people in other parts of the world.
The volunteers, estimated at more than 200, took part in a Change This World meal-packaging event coordinated by Wesley Chapel Toyota.
Those helping out on Sunday, June 26, included dealership employees, vendors and customers as well as area residents and volunteers from community groups, schools, churches and local businesses.
Change This World is a nonprofit organization based in Orlando that aims to provide meals to those who are malnourished or dying of starvation. It partners with groups across the United States to package meals that are distributed around the world.
Eric Johnson, director of corporate and community relations for Wesley Chapel Toyota, was ecstatic about the turnout.
“There are lots of things that people can do on a Sunday afternoon, but they chose to come here,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of families here, working together. A lot of community groups. They know they’re going to make a difference.”
The event’s goal was to pack 40,000 meals, and when Johnson announced the group had reached the midway point, a cheer erupted.
Scott “Scooter” LaVancher, a sales associate at the dealership, was among those pitching in.
“This is awesome,” said LaVancher, who kept busy lugging 50-pound bags of soy powder from table to table, replenishing bins that were being quickly emptied by the volunteer meal-packers.
“I put this up on my Facebook page,” he said, which spurred several of his friends to come out and help.
One of those was 8-year-old Lauren Kelly of Spring Hill, who accompanied her mom to the event. The girl did her part by scooping soy powder from a 50-pound bag into a plastic bin on a table.
Charlene Heckenbach and her husband, Roland, of Wesley Chapel, said they bought a car at the dealership in April and wanted to do their part.
Leo and Karen Thaler of Chancey Road Christian Church in Zephyrhills said they read a notice about the event in the newspaper and were motivated to come out and help.
Alicia Nolan, who works at the dealership, said she was inspired to get involved by her faith. “I wanted to help bless others,” she said.
Chris Tanner, one of the organizers of the event for Change This World, said the turnout was impressive.
“We have more than we need for volunteers,” Tanner said. “That’s always a good thing. The people here are awesome,” he added. “Very enthusiastic.”
Tanner also noted that it is unusual for a business to take the leadership role in arranging a meal-packing event. Typically, a church or school is the primary sponsor, he said.
Kalee Taylor, another organizer from Change This World, commented on the obvious can-do attitude and team spirit among volunteers.
“Everybody wants to take part. Everybody just kind of picked out their own job and stuck to it,” Taylor said.
Among the volunteers was a group of more than two dozen administrators and staff members from Wesley Chapel High.
Marcy Maxwell and Principal Carin Nettles were at the end of that table’s assembly line – busily packing the meal packets into boxes.
“We’re in partnership with Wesley Chapel Toyota,” Maxwell said. “We thought it would be a great way to help the community.”
Patrick Abad, the dealership’s general manager, sponsored the high school’s table, Johnson said, noting the dealership had to raise $10,000 to put on the event. It did that by seeking sponsorships from dealership vendors, local businesses and others.
Even before Sunday’s event had concluded, Johnson was already thinking about having another meal-packing event.
Next time, he wants to pack 80,000 meals.
“For the next one, I’m going to look for schools and churches to partner up with us,” he said.
And, Johnson doesn’t plan to stop there.
“My vision, my goal, is that I’m going to do a container event. It’s going to take the whole weekend, but we would do 200,000 meals.
“We fill a container with boxes, and then ultimately travel overseas with it and deliver it to the people — actually go to Africa,” Johnson said.