Local food bank hosts 'volunteer happy hours' to spread its mission | St. Louis Public Radio

Local food bank hosts 'volunteer happy hours' to spread its mission

Feb 10, 2016

Not all of the food at Operation Food Search one evening last December was going to needy families.

Rather, some were appetizers to be paired with wine and beer and enjoyed by the volunteers at the University City-based food bank, as part of its "Rap N Pack" event that mixes socializing with volunteering.

"It’s a great time for volunteers to come out, enjoy appetizers, drinks, mix and mingle, socialize, network, meet friends in the St. Louis community, and most importantly, volunteer and give back to the community," said development and volunteer manager Katie Shay Schneider. 

She said Operation Food Search launched these "signature events" last May in part to attract more volunteers. Since then, the organization has held several of these gatherings for the public, but businesses and other volunteer groups also can schedule their own private events. 

Another public Rap N Pack is scheduled for Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the warehouse.

Sami Douglass of Chesterfield said she was surprised by the festive atmosphere of the December Rap N Pack, and that volunteering to help others helped her shake her holiday blues.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

Back in December, more than a hundred volunteers snacked and sang along to holiday music on loudspeakers as they packed up donations into boxes and backpacks to distribute to those in need throughout the community.

As she sorted through a pile of donated winter coats, Sami Douglass of Chesterfield momentarily paused to accept a glass of wine. She said the festive and social event was just what she needed during a difficult holiday season after her youngest son moved away.

"I was feeling kind of blue and I thought, 'You know, I need to find something to do for people who need help.' It's just bringing such joy to me and making it so much easier," she said.

Nearby, Steven Munoz of Ballwin said he's volunteered with Operation Food Search many times before, but had never gotten to connect with other volunteers.

"It's a good way to socialize," he said. "Usually when I come in to volunteer, it's just me by myself. So it's kinda nice, definitely different than what I'm used to," he said.

Emily Bernstein (right) of University City and Steven Munoz of Ballwin became friends while sorting coats for men, women and children during Operation Food Search's Rap N Pack.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

Schneider said the events also help spread the organization's mission and teach people about what it does.

"Whether it's the first time you come or you've volunteered many, many times, you’re always learning something new about us," she said. "It’s not just 'we are sorting coats or packing back packs.' We are helping serve over 190,000 people who are considered food insecure in St. Louis and the surrounding communities a month."

It's about opening up the doors and bringing the public inside, said Lucinda Perry, director of strategic initiatives.

"We’re much more than a distribution center - we have nutrition education and also have a large focus on childhood nutrition and eliminating childhood hunger," she said. "For people to see all the elements of our work is really exciting."

Though she donates to the organization on a regular basis, Kristin Waynick of Arnold said she learned a lot from volunteering in person at the Rap N Pack.

Volunteer Kristin Waynick of Arnold said sorting food that would go to hungry children was particularly important to her.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

"I didn’t realize how much food there was until I walked into this space," she said. "To see the amount of food, the amount of energy that it takes to run this place, it's something that unless you see it, it's hard to visualize when you're sitting at home and giving your donation. It makes you want to open up your heart even more."

She added: "It’s awesome to be part of this and this community, and to see these smiling faces come out and do this tonight."

One of those smiling faces belonged to KB Dorsey of St. Louis, who was there volunteering with her company.

"I’m probably dancing a little too much, getting distracted from the music," she joked. "They make it really fun for us to come out. It feels really good. I want to be a person that my daughter sees (doing) volunteer work."

The original idea for the events began with the organization's Young Friends Board. While it is open to volunteers of all ages, the "volunteer happy hour" holds a particular appeal for the younger crowd, said board co-president Virginia Green.

Volunteer KB Dorsey said she was able to get to know some of her coworkers better during the Rap N Pack event. She said her company values giving back to the community.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

"It’s just fun, it’s different. It’s not the normal trivia night or canned food drive, it’s unique," she said. "Here we are, packing bags of food and sorting coats for people - you can imagine people that are actually going to be getting the things and using them. (It's) just bringing people together."

The next event will be Valentine's Day-themed, which the organization's Lucinda Perry says makes sense.

"We’ve actually had some match-making happen at these Rap N Packs, too, so romance buds once in a while," she said. 

Follow Stephanie Lecci on Twitter: @stephlecci.