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Mary’s Meals provides food and education to help impoverished children around the globe

Just one good meal

SOLON– In the early 1990s, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow went to Romania with the simple goal of bringing food and clothing to children’s hospitals.
However, once he arrived, his mission changed drastically.
After wandering into a room where he admits he probably wasn’t supposed to be, he was greeted with the sullen, hopeless faces of about 50 children, long forgotten and abandoned by society. Some, even at the age of 12 or 13, couldn’t even walk, simply because no one had bothered to teach them.
At that moment, he knew he had to do more than just provide them basic aid.
He and a team of volunteers began the painstaking work of building houses to get those neglected children out of their dire circumstances and into a place that felt more like home. Some criticized his work, saying there was no point in helping the children, that there was no worth in what they were doing. MacFarlane-Barrow himself believed what he was really building was a hospice; a place where the children could live out the rest of their short lives in peace.
But 10 years later, almost all of those children are now happy, thriving adults. MacFarlane-Barrow has even been lucky enough to attend the weddings of three of the little girls whose lives he changed.
“That work in Romania really showed me that no situation is impossible to change,” MacFarlane-Barrow said. “Those darkest situations can appear hopeless, but that whole experience encouraged me to go on and do more of this work.”
That work has transformed into what is now Mary’s Meals, an international aid organization dedicated to providing meals to impoverished children around the world in their place of education.
MacFarlane-Barrow visited Solon Sept. 18 to speak to the community about the organization’s work and how Iowans can get involved. The event was hosted by Solon football coach, Kevin Miller, and included presentations by former NFL player Aaron Kampman and his wife Linde Kampman, 16-year-old Allison Ockenfels, a Mary’s Meals supporter, and Mary’s Meals in the Heartland Volunteer Coordinator Ellen Miller.
The Christian-based charity is built upon the idea that if a hungry child is given one good meal in his or her school, that child’s life could be changed forever. Since its inception in 2002 in a Malawi village, that concept has been proven true.
“Children who had never been to school before started coming. Children who used to come to school just sometimes began coming every day,” MacFarlane-Barrow said. “Their teachers were reporting an improvement in academic performance and test scores.”
Soon, that one village helped by the program turned into a second. Then another, and another. Now Mary’s Meals feeds over 700,000 children in Malawi alone and has expanded to countries like Liberia, Haiti, and India. Overall, the organization feeds around 925,000 children a day.
Getting local communities involved in the process is one of the key factors in making Mary’s Meals a success. Before the charity begins to provide assistance, community members must build their own kitchen in the school and offer their own time to cook and volunteer.
This makes the program sustainable by keeping operating costs low and allowing the community to take more ownership. Mary’s Meals also strives to purchase all food locally in order to boost the local economies in areas where it operates.
Because of this, it only costs $19.50 to feed one student for an entire year.
MacFarlane-Barrow has visited Iowa several times before and said he has always been impressed with the giving nature Iowans have displayed.
“I can say very sincerely that the generosity I see here in Iowa is something incredible. I would say it’s almost unique,” MacFarlane-Barrow said.
In no way is that statement more evident than in the story of Allison Ockenfels. The Wellman native first heard MacFarlane-Barrow speak when she was just 12 years old. Touched by the story of Mary’s Meals, she asked her mother if she could raise money in her community to help the organization. Initially, she had hoped to raise enough money to build just one kitchen, which costs about $11,000. Instead, she has raised over $46,000 in the last four years, helping to build three school kitchens and fund a school feeding program.
“One of the things that inspired me to promote Mary’s Meals was just thinking and trying to imagine what it would be like to go without a meal for one or two days,” Ockenfels said.
In the past year, the communities of Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Solon have raised a total of $21,000 for Mary’s Meals, with Solon contributing over $5,000 since January.
Now, Patty Erusha, a Mary’s Meals volunteer, hopes to raise the stakes by sponsoring a school in Africa. Her goal is to raise $25,000 to help the school of just over 1,200 students.
More information on how to donate to Solon’s sponsored school will be available in the coming weeks.
To make a donation to Mary’s Meals, contact Erusha at 319-624-2537 or email perusha@southslope.net.