When Mangai Sundaram was a sophomore at Phillips Academy, she wanted to get involved in her community in a way that would benefit others.
Sundaram, 17, now a senior, had previously participated in a meal-packing event with her dad in San Francisco, where she used to live when she was younger. She wanted to bring the event to Andover, so she pitched the idea to her two friends, Carly Kukk and Ava Stills. With Sundaram spearheading the idea, the three kicked off their own meal-packing event, which would significantly grow over the next two years.
The third annual meal-packing event was held Sunday afternoon at the Phillips Academy gymnasium. With over 250 people in attendance sporting red hair nets, it was crunch time to get their goal of 35,000 meals packed in about one hour.
Gathered around circular tables in groups of eight to 10 people, meals were persistently packed by volunteers. A gong sounded at every 1,000 meals packed, acknowledging each major step closer to their end goal.
The first year the event was hosted, Sundaram said the goal was to have the 70 people in attendance pack 10,000 meals. The subsequent year, that amount of people nearly doubled and their goal was to pack 25,000 meals. This year, their goal was to pack 35,000 meals, which would be shipped to a country plagued with hunger.
Though she did not know where the meals would be shipped to yet, in the past they have gone to Turkey and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two countries affected by hunger.
Sundaram said the meals — called "relief meals" — feed families of four to six people, and are a one-pot meal that includes vitamins, soy, dried veggies, and rice.
"This is a band-aid fix to a bigger problem," said Sundaram.
Fundraising efforts and donations from parents of Phillips Academy students and Abbot Academy are how the meals are primarily funded. Sundaram said they raised over $11,000 this year to cover the costs of the food and supplies. By teaming up with Rise Against Hunger, Abbot Academy and Aaron's Presents, she is able to make the event possible each year.
"This has been amazing," Sundaram said. "This started off as something really small in my head, and we made it happen. ... It's fulfilling to know we're working today toward a goal bigger than ourselves."
Leah Okimoto, founder and executive director of Aaron's Presents, said the event unites people from different communities, which makes the day even more special. Her organization is a youth non-profit that works with kids aged younger than eighth grade to participate in acts of community service.
Sundaram is an alumni of Aaron's Presents, and reached out to them to get involved in her meal-packing idea. Okimoto said their main job is to bring as many people as they can to help, noting that last year they had 150 people involved, and this year about 200.
"This is like a dream," said Okimoto. "Seeing someone who worked with us go on to do something so big."