MOUNT AIRY — The gymnasium at Mount Airy Christian Academy was filled with nearly 100 heads capped with plastic hairnets Thursday, all bopping to the beat of Pharrell Williams' "Happy," or else in time to the rhythm of their task. Working in teams, the children, all students ranging from third to 12th grades, scooped rice, dried vegetables and soy into plastic bags. Then, someone off to the side rang a gong, the resounding crash followed by the cheers of the students.
"They hit a thousands meals!" said Vicky Webster, head of school at the academy. The gong would ring 10 times before everyone was done.
Mount Airy Christian Academy has always engaged in service projects, but this was the first time the school had attempted to pack thousands of meals for needy families all over the world, according to Academic Dean Lori Sefton. The meals will be distributed to families in 36 different countries in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe, through the nonprofit ChildFund International.
"We had a goal of packing 10,000 meals to go to needy individuals in Third World countries," Sefton said. "We asked the students before Christmas to raise the funds on their own, maybe by doing extra chores at home to raise the money, using their allowance, whatever, to donate money. The students brought in $3,600."
Although scooping rice into bags might not rank high on many teens list of fun activities, the day turned out to be surprisingly entertaining, according to senior Brady Smith, 18, of Mount Airy.
"It's been a lot of fun. I've been looking around and everyone seems to be having a good time," Smith said. "Of all the other projects we've done at MACA, this is definitely unique."
Different grade levels do different service work sometimes, according to Smith, but the food packing project brought everyone together in one place.
"The little kids look up to the high schoolers and having them all work together, the little kids are happy because they get to work with the big kids and the big kids get to serve the community," he said.
The party-like atmosphere and range of ages — there were third-, fourth-, fifth-, seventh-, ninth-, 11th- and 12th-grade students present for the afternoon packing session, with other grades having packed 5,000 meals Thursday morning — also won over seventh-grader Charlie Burrall, of Mount Airy.
"We get to bond with some elementary schools and middle schoolers," he said. "We get to yell 'runner' ... get to yell when the gong goes."
The gong, with perfect timing, was struck to punctuate Charlie's sentence, and announce that 7,000 meals had been packed.
Bringing all the students together in a large service project was part of a concerted theme at the school, according to Sefton, a weeklong project called Go Beyond.
"We are challenging our kids to go beyond their comfort zones, beyond the walls of MACA to minister to other people," she said. "Today we are doing this [food packing] that will minister to people around the world, and tomorrow ... we had planned to minister to people in our area."
Students were scheduled to go to various locations in Carroll and Frederick counties to engage in a wide array of service work on Friday, but predicted the blizzard forced the school to postpone and reschedule those activities, according to Webster. Although it breaks up their Go Beyond week, she said the students will head out to complete their service April 1.
"They are doing everything from some small maintenance work in an area church, to outside work at a horse rescue place," Webster said. "Some of the elementary children are making cards and singing at nursing homes, and the other elementary children are going to the local police departments and fire stations to say thank you."
Despite the winter weather disrupting the continuity of the school's plans, Webster said she hopes to make Go Beyond, or something like it, an annual commitment.
"I was told this morning that this is the best single event the school has ever done," Webster said. "I was told that by multiple staff members, so it seems to be striking a chord."