The Rapidian

Traverse City students practice faith by packing potatoes in Comstock Park

Why the fifth-grade class of Immaculate Conception Elementary drives 130 miles to the Grand Rapids area each year.
Fifth-grade students pack food at Feeding America West Michigan, April 22.

Fifth-grade students pack food at Feeding America West Michigan, April 22. /Feeding America West Michigan

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"Love is never love until you give it away": Students wear wristbands honoring Keegan Tarrant.

"Love is never love until you give it away": Students wear wristbands honoring Keegan Tarrant. /Feeding America West Michigan

In one hour at Feeding America West Michigan, a volunteer can provide 150 meals.

In one hour at Feeding America West Michigan, a volunteer can provide 150 meals. /Feeding America West Michigan

Each year 3-4,000 volunteers serve at Feeding America West Michigan. For much of the past decade, that number has included about 100 fifth graders from Immaculate Conception Elementary School, part of the Grand Traverse Area Catholic School system.

On Friday, a fresh batch of fifth graders made the 130-mile drive from Traverse City to Comstock Park.

“What are we here to do?” teacher Ben Beckwith asks them when they arrive.

“Serve!” they shout back.

Immaculate Conception works with Feeding America West Michigan because, as Beckwith says, no other hunger-relief organization can accommodate so many volunteers at one time, or allow them to have such a big impact.

“They love it,” he says, “They get to see it on a whole different scale. We have our local pantries, but I like to tell them this is the godfather of pantries.”

Based in Comstock Park, Feeding America West Michigan provides 22 million meals to food pantries, soup kitchens and community centers across 40 Michigan counties, including Grand Traverse.

Once equipped with hairnets, gloves and a little knowledge about Michigan’s hunger-relief network, the students get to work sorting potatoes, bagging frozen meat and making “picnic boxes” of assorted condiments in the warehouse.

Student Maddie Lessard takes a break from weighing frozen sausage patties to explain that volunteering is a big part of the curriculum at Immaculate Conception. Last month, her class spent time with the residents of a Traverse City nursing home.

“We helped celebrate birthdays with them in the month of March,” she says.

“It feels good to help out.”

Classmate Nathan Huffman says volunteer projects are a way to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy central to the Catholic faith — in this case, feeding the hungry.

“Basically, it’s doing lots of things for the community that help everyone,” he says.

In two hours, the students had packed 8,185 pounds of food. Combined with a $1,000 donation from the school, the fifth graders of Immaculate Conception Elementary helped provide nearly 11,000 meals to people in need.

But they aren’t just volunteering on principal this year. The project is personal.

Nearly every student is wearing a wristband bearing the words “Love isn’t love until you give it away — KGT.” The bands honor Keegan Tarrant, the older sister of two of the fifth graders, who died last year.

The Keegan Mission Project provides mission trip scholarships for students and was established in her honor. “Mission work shaped who Keegan was,” the project’s homepage says. “That’s the thing: missionary activity not only changes the lives of those you are serving, it can also have a profound impact on your life.”

The bands remind the students to care for and serve others, Beckwith says. “It’s a way of bringing Keegan down to Grand Rapids with them.”

Those interested in serving at Feeding America West Michigan can sign up at FeedWM.org.

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