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Okoboji-area churches help to organize food-packing drive for Ukrainian refugees

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Committee photo

Members of a committee working on a food-packing drive organized by St. Joseph and St. Mary's Catholic churches are shown at the Pier in Arnolds Park, Iowa. Volunteers from the congregations and the broader community will package 168,000 meals to be sent to Ukrainian refugees living in Poland. 

SPIRIT LAKE, Iowa — Hundreds of volunteers, representing Okoboji-area churches and the community at large, will be packing food Aug. 10 to send to Ukrainian refugees in Poland. 

Teresa Goehring, director of youth ministry with St. Joseph Catholic Church in Milford, Iowa, said $59,000 has been raised through a youth-led fundraising effort co-organized by St. Joseph and St. Mary's Catholic Church in nearby Spirit Lake. This money is enough to acquire and ship 168,000 freeze-dried meals. 

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began back in February, and the subsequent rush of Ukrainian refugees into neighboring countries, Goehring said that members of St. Joseph and St. Mary's wanted to help but were uncertain of how to go about it, given the 5,100 miles or so (and an ocean) that lies between Dickinson County and the Ukraine. 

"Just like most Americans, we've been having our parish priest talk about the Ukrainian refugees, we've been praying for them, we did a fundraiser and sent money through Catholic Relief Services," she said. "But I had some kids come, and Father (Brian Hughes) as well, and say -- we need to do something, and you feel so helpless. I mean we're so far away, but yet, they're just like us. The Ukrainians are farmers, they're highly educated. They're the breadbasket of Europe." 

Children in the parish sought a "tactile" way to help, Goehring said, and eventually the St. Joseph and St. Mary congregations found The Outreach Program, a nonprofit relief organization based in Union, Iowa, that has sent about 500,000 meals to Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Transporting the food to Europe is handled by a partner organization, Convoy of Hope.

The Outreach Program -- like countless other relief organizations -- was long-accustomed to sending food relief to Africa, where malnutrition and starvation have been entrenched for decades. Food intended for the developing world is typically formulated to combat nutrient deficiencies and provide quick, hefty doses of nutriment. 

But the food needs of Ukrainians, who, by and large, were adequately fed at least until the hostilities started, were different, Goehring said. So the food relief for Europe was reformulated in hopes of better reflecting the needs of Ukrainian refugees. 

Millions of Ukrainian refugees have crossed the Polish border this year; assistance has been furnished by the Polish government and private citizens alike. Last month, a United Nations official praised the generosity shown toward the Ukrainian refugees in Poland. 

Nevertheless, there are a lot of displaced mouths to feed. 

"One of the hidden things that's happened during this time, is the Ukrainian people have flooded all these surrounding countries, and it's really put a stressor on their food supply. So we want to relieve that by providing for the Ukrainian refugees," Goehring said. 

The Outreach Program offered to bring a meal-packing event to Dickinson County, with the stipulation that $14,000 be raised -- enough to purchase 30,000 meals. "And that day the kids were just like, 'We can do this.' So excited," Goehring said. After about eight phone calls, those funds were secured. 

From there, committees were set up, in part to bring in greater community participation and to offer leadership opportunities for the kids. More churches and schools in the Iowa Great Lakes area got involved in the fundraising effort, which eventually yielded $59,000. 

Five hundred volunteers -- from elementary schoolchildren to residents of assisted-living facilities -- are set to take part in the packing drive, which will take place at the Expo Building at the Dickinson County Fairgrounds in Spirit Lake. 

"This is a great opportunity to do two things -- one, feed some folks that are desperately in need of our support and two, raise awareness in our community of the importance of standing in solidarity with men and women across the world who are fighting for democracy for their children and grandchildren," Fr. Hughes said in a statement provided by Goehring. 

"I saw this packing event as an opportunity to get my hands dirty and grow closer to the people in the community while serving those so far away," added Zach Steffens, a St. Mary's committee member, in a provided statement. 

Any further donations received will "be put towards food packing, in some way, shape or form," Goehring said. All volunteer slots are currently filled, she added. 

"When people serve, the message of Christianity comes alive, the message of the Gospel comes alive, and I think it's just a great opportunity to roll up our sleeves and make a tangible impact for the Ukrainians," she said. 

"When people serve, the message of Christianity comes alive, the message of the Gospel comes alive, and I think it's just a great opportunity to roll up our sleeves and make a tangible impact for the Ukrainians," Teresa Goehring, director of youth ministry with St. Joseph Catholic Church

"When people serve, the message of Christianity comes alive, the message of the Gospel comes alive, and I think it's just a great opportunity to roll up our sleeves and make a tangible impact for the Ukrainians," Teresa Goehring, director of youth ministry with St. Joseph Catholic Church
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