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Volunteers pack meals bound for West Africa at Orioles Park

Volunteers pack meals bound for West Africa at Orioles Park
Joe Brady, Linda Schwartz and Susan Oppenheimer are among the volunteers who packed food bound for West Africa at the Warehouse Building of Camden Yards. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

An enthusiastic and efficient corps of volunteers packed 30,000 meals in just over 90 minutes at Camden Yards Saturday and readied them for shipment to West Africa.

The packers were part of Helping Hands, a charity event organized by Catholic Relief Services and co-hosted and promoted by the Baltimore Orioles at a former warehouse space on the stadium grounds.

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"The idea is to raise awareness of the hunger that exists in the world today," said Sean Callahan, chief executive officer of Catholic Relief Services.

"We became partners with the Orioles to work with us and get our message out," said Callahan. "The result is the mixed group of people here today."

Some 262 volunteers were busily weighing soy flour, rice, dry vegetables and vitamin powder by mid-morning and placing them into individual cardboard cartons that were then placed in larger containers. Their goal was 30,000 meal kits and every time they reached 10,000, a volunteer pounded a brass gong.

"The people here worked well together," said Lee Boatwright, a volunteer from North Baltimore. "They got 30,000 dry meals together in a hour and a half. Not bad."

The meal packages will be shipped to Burkina Faso, a landlocked republic of 17 million people south of Ghana in West Africa. It is formerly known as Upper Volta.

"The people in Burkina Faso are hard working. They work manually in the fields with hoes, said Thomas Awiapo, who grew up in Ghana near the line that separates the two countries. "But it doesn't matter how hard you work if the rain fails — you have nothing. You often get a drought or maybe a flood. The weather is never appropriate."

Awiapo, a Catholic Relief Services consultant, lived in the Ghanaian village of Wiaga, and grew up as an orphan.

"My parents probably died of malaria, but I never knew for certain," he said. "I also lost a brother and a sister. But I had uncles and aunties so I was not alone."

He recalled being hungry as a child in his village and smelling a meal being prepared at a local elementary school. His nose led him to a U.S. funded feeding program at the school. The meal, a wheat porridge mixture of powdered milk and vegetable oil, was similar to the meal kits the Baltimore volunteers assembled Saturday

"That hot meal was treasured. We stayed in school to get it," he said. "And we walked two or three miles to the school. You would not be fed that meal unless you stayed in school for the day. I did and the priests and nuns saw that I got a full education."

He said the meal kits prepared at Orioles Park would be distributed at women's centers, hospitals, clinics and schools in West Africa.

As Awiapo spoke, teams circulated throughout the former warehouse's sixth floor and helped box the meals. Some of the participants had raised $500 to donate to the charity.

"The day makes a big impression. The Orioles said come and help and that's why we are here. It was a happy assembly line," said Linda Schwartz, a Parkville resident and a former Enoch Pratt Free Library branch manager.

She arrived at the event wearing an orange Orioles cap and jazzy matching glasses.

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"My group came up a little short. We could only collect $385. But we'll be back next year," Schwartz said.

Andrew Ayers, a senior at the Friends School of Baltimore , led a group of classmates who hauled heavy sacks of rice and vitamin mix to the sorting tables.

"This is an event I feel we should make an annual project at Friends," he said.

Former Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick, master of ceremonies at the event, represented the organization. He also signed a few autographs.

"This is an event that will continue to grow and make its impact felt," Bordick predicted.

When the marathon packing session ended, all that remained were empty tables, some rice scatterings on the floor and a stack of empty brown paper sacks marked Cargill textured soy flour.

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