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Hawley hungry to help: Town packs 300,000 meals for the impoverished

Hawley, Minn. - A charitable effort by residents here spurred some bizarre occurrences recently: shorts and flip-flop sightings in January, an M&M's shopping spree and a visit by a Zimbabwean orphanage director.

In partnership with the Twin Cities-based Christian nonprofit Feed My Starving Children, Hawley is buying and packing more than 300,000 meals for youngsters in impoverished countries. The event was inspired by a 2009 packing marathon in Perham. And as in Perham, the fundraiser here has sucked in the entire community.

"Just about every person in the Hawley area is involved in one way or another," says organizer Julie Gerhardson. "I don't think Hawley has ever seen or done anything like this."

Last fall, Gerhardson's parents, Audrey and Marv, took a trip to Zimbabwe to visit their son, Tim, who works at the U.S. Embassy there. For years, the couple has contributed to Feed My Starving Children and packed meals for them in the Twin Cities. They'd always wanted to witness mealtime in one of the 60 countries where the nonprofit ships the soy, rice and dried vegetable mixes.

At an orphanage, they watched children clap their hands as they received platefuls of those meals. They returned to Minnesota fired up to do more.

Last spring, Perham had rallied to pack 400,000 meals for Feed My Starving Children. The Gerhardsons got some tips from Tamara Langen, a Perham organizer, who says her city plans to pack 1 million meals in April 2011.

The Gerhardsons prepared pictures and video from Zimbabwe for a January pitch to local church leadership. Two days before that presentation, the earthquake in Haiti struck.

The fledgling fundraiser's new slogan: Hawley Helping Haiti. The goal: Raise $46,000 and pack 270,000 meals.

The earthquake gave the kickoff to the drive instant momentum. Says Marv: "Everybody knew about the earthquake. Everybody knew about the desperation there."

Christy Hallenbeck of Feed My Starving Children says the group received more than $1.1 million in donations in the weeks after the earthquake. As a result, the organization sent several million extra meals to Haiti, already its No. 1 aid recipient.

Hawley sprung to action.

"It's been a fun winter because there's been a lot going on with this," says Audrey.

There was the Hoe Down for Haiti, an afternoon of barbecue pork and dancing. There was Sing for the Starving, an afternoon of hymns, prayer and soup at Hawley Lutheran. The Shear Shop in town gave free Haircuts for Haiti. A quilt maker donated quilts for a raffle.

Hawley students filled 850 M&M's tubes with quarters, raising $4,600. A third-grade class held a cookie sale. The elementary held Shiver-in-Shorts Day, when students and teachers paid $1 for the privilege to wear beach attire on a minus-12-degree January day.

"This has been a tremendous opportunity for our kids to touch the world, to go beyond their boundaries," said High School Principal Mike Martin.

With $60,000 raised, Hawley has exceeded its goal, and organizers recently ordered 50,000 additional meals. Some 1,700 volunteers, including guests from Perham and other towns, have signed up to pack the meals Friday and Saturday. The director of the orphanage the Gerhardsons visited in Zimbabwe plans to stop by after a conference in Texas.

"Other communities can do the same," Audrey Gerhardson says. "We'd be happy to help them."

If you go

What: Feed My Starving Children meal-packing event

When: 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hawley High School

Info: Contact Julie Gerhardson at (701) 799-8976.