FITCHBURG -- Many students at the end of the school year are watching videos, cleaning out lockers or counting the hours until the last day comes. Not at Monty Tech.
This year, students in grades nine through 11 were making history by being the first school in the area to participate in the United Way's Combat Hunger initiative.
Donning hairnets, latex gloves and specially printed T-Shirts, more than 150 students, faculty and staff spent the day before the end of school assembling and packaging 22,000 individual meals, which will be distributed to local food banks.
After receiving assistance and support from Phil Grzewinski, president of the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, in meeting the school's goal of donations to finish building the school's new Veterinary Science Training Center, Superintendent-Director Sheila Harrity wanted to reciprocate the good deed by "paying it forward."
"Mr. Grzewinski assistance in meeting our goal was essential in making our new endeavor a reality. So, when he told me about the United Way's 'Combat Hunger' campaign, I knew we needed to get involved," said Harrity.
Monty Tech's JROTC cadets, under the direction of First Sgt. Paul Jornet, U.S.M.C (ret.), took the initiative in the project, with assistance from Victoria Zarozinski, director of Student Support Services, and Kathleen Hanson, school social worker.
Volunteers assembled and packaged a total of 22,000 individual meals, that included beans and rice, apple cinnamon oatmeal, macaroni and cheese and tomato basil pasta.
According to United Way volunteers, the meals are high in nutrition and low in sugar and fat. "The macaroni and cheese, for example, is five times healthier than what you get in the supermarkets," said one volunteer.
JROTC cadet Clarissa Simmers-Swanson of Winchendon said most people aren't aware of the extent of hunger right in their own neighborhood. She said she is particularly sensitive to the problem because her mother on occasion has reached out and helped families in need.
Cadet Colin Driscoll of Baldwinville said helping people in need makes him feel better about himself. He said he first witnessed extreme need when his friend's house burned down, and he was worried where he would find his next meal.
Grzewinski thanked the volunteers for "giving their time to take care of a great need." He said he was pleased and proud that Monty Tech is the first school in the area to take on this endeavor.
In outlining the extent of childhood hunger in the region, he said: "In North Central Mass alone, there are 5,000 children who leave school each day not knowing where they will get their next meal. To me this is unacceptable, especially in a country as sophisticated as ours. Fulfilling the basic needs of our population is the most important thing we can do. The United Way is dedicated to meeting this need," he said.
Although it was a major undertaking, particularly at the end of the school year, Principal Thomas R. Browne said everything went smoothly, and he couldn't be more proud of all who worked so hard to make it a great success.
"It was tremendous to assist with the coordination of such an event, and see it come to life. Whenever you can volunteer and make a direct impact in your community, it feels good. I commend every student and staff member who stepped up and I thank them for making a difference. With plans to do it again next year, our hope to raise additional funds, purchase more meals, and go big," said Zarozinski.
Hanson said it was a wonderful opportunity for students to give back. "We have never done a food drive on this level, but now that we have, we are excited about doing it again next year.