Mack Gives Back was founded in 2012 by vice president for mission and ministry, Father Raymond Dlugos, O.S.A. and is now orchestrated through the Hands to Help neighborhood resource center. Originally, Mack Gives Back was an annual service event held once every academic year. Student-volunteers would go out into the community and complete tasks for neighboring organizations, government agencies and nonprofits in need.
Over the course of its near-decade long tenure, the event has since adapted and changed to meet the needs of the present moment. When in-person events were put on hold throughout 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Hands to Help and Campus Ministry pivoted to make the event accessible and safe for students on campus.
As local and national food insecurity rose dramatically during the pandemic, Director of Hands to Help Rosana Urbaez and Assistant Director of Hands to Help Lisbeth Valdez decided to host a series of food packaging events on campus. These events allowed students to remain on campus, in compliance with pandemic and social distancing guidelines – while still making a positive impact in the community.
“Pre-pandemic students were going out and doing things like cleaning up garbage or painting,” Urbaez said. “This year, however, we kind of stayed with the food security issue and a rotation of student-volunteers packaged meals for the nine hours that we were in the SAK.”
The first alternative Mack Gives Back in fall 2020 delivered 72,000 meals to local community partners, primarily food pantries in Lawrence, MA, like Bread and Roses and the Merrimack Valley Food Bank. This year, Mack Gives Back continued this new tradition of meal packing on campus, hosting 628 volunteers on Saturday, Nov. 13, and packaging 90,000 meal kits for local communities in need.
“Groups of 50 to 65 students, faculty, staff and alumni were packing every hour, some of them individual volunteers and then we had about 37 athletic teams and student organizations participating, as well,” Urbaez said. “The meals were packaged on Saturday and moved to a building that was recently acquired by Creative Haverhill the following Thursday, where the organization agreed to let us store about 50,000 meals.”
Creative Haverhill is a 501c3 non-profit organization that has provided residents of greater Haverhill with arts and cultural experiences since 2009. They provided much-needed overflow storage space and the city of Haverhill donated a truck to transport the bulk of the meals from campus.
Ten different food pantries received a share of the meals packaged. As they use their on-site supplies in the coming weeks and months, they will be able to replenish meal kits from the Creative Haverhill overflow site.
“Each site is going to keep track of how long the food lasts them and we will collectively keep track of how long the food stored in that building lasts,” Urbaez said. “This way, we will be able to better understand the need in the community and see how many times we should replicate this in the future. Was this effective? Do we need to do more?”
As in previous years, Merrimack students, alumni, faculty and staff were all eligible to volunteer their time and package meal kits for hourlong sessions. Athletic teams and student organizations also made it out to the event, volunteering as a way to build team camaraderie, friendships and do something good for the community.
The event took place in the Multipurpose Room (MPR) in the Sakowich Campus Center and was an impressive operation blending the longstanding roots of service at Merrimack with the newer, on-campus model for Mack Gives Back.
“Mack Gives Back has been a staple in the Merrimack community for almost a decade,” said Elaine Ward, special assistant to the president for civic and community engagement. “What’s exciting now is the opportunity to build relationships outside of Merrimack, as well, with local community partners who are really on the frontlines of advocacy and support in the Merrimack Valley. By partnering with all these different organizations, Merrimack gets to be a part of something even bigger and that much more impactful.”
Meals packaged on campus were distributed to food pantries and holding locations throughout the week, with the majority of meals transported on Thursday, Nov. 18. The additional holding location through Creative Haverhill will ensure each of the 90,000 meals packaged will be delivered to community members in need when they truly need it.