By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

PENNDEL – It was most definitely a day on, not a day off, on Jan. 19 in the gymnasium of Our Lady of Grace School, Penndel. There, a couple hundred volunteers marked Martin Luther King’s birthday by assembling meals for distribution to physically frail shut-ins by Aid for Friends (AFF).

“We did this in the cafeteria last year, but we couldn’t fit this year,” said Director of Parish Services Marietta Ginieczki, who along with Jane Gibbons of Maple Point Middle School coordinated the event.

“It’s really a community event,” said Ginieczki, and a glance at the hall showed not only children from the parochial and public school but many adult volunteers and teens, too, coming together for a day of community service.

However, it didn’t all come about in one day.

Planning started at the beginning of the month. An AFF representative spoke at Our Lady of Grace Masses Jan. 10-11, after which non-perishable foods were collected and donations accepted for items to be purchased.

On the days immediately preceding King’s birthday, a small group of adult volunteers went to AFF headquarters on Townsend Road in Northeast Philadelphia and pre-cooked much of the food the larger group would pack. It was then placed in a large refrigerated van for transportation to the gym.

Sign-in sheets which probably underreport the actual figures showed 204 volunteers, well in excess of expectations. There were 73 kids from Our Lady of Grace School; 34 from Maple Point Middle School; 25 from various high schools; and most of the balance from scout troops and adult volunteers.

Everyone had assigned tasks, including the littlest children who drew greeting cards.

Christopher Quaglia and Alex Phinn, both sixth graders at Our Lady of Grace, were filling small containers with cranberry sauce.

“It’s fun,” said Christopher. “You are helping other people. I think Martin Luther King was a very good man.”

“He was a good person and he stood up for black people,” agreed Alex, who is in his third or fourth year volunteering.

Alexandra Panepresso, an eighth-grader and student council president at Our Lady of Grace School, was with a group of girls adding starches – pasta, rice and beans – to the prepared meals.

“This is going to help all of the shut-ins,” she said. “Martin Luther King was very brave to go up in front of everyone and say what he believed.”

Patrick McFarlane, a junior, and Tony Pallanta, a senior, both at Holy Ghost Prep, were doing the grunt work by carrying supplies from the truck to the various assembly tables.

“My sister was going to do this. She found out about it at church, I said I’d do it too. I’m glad I came,” Pallanta said.

“I think it’s great honoring Martin Luther King this way,” McFarlane added.

When all was said and done, 1,820 dinner meals were assembled for freezing and later distribution, as well as 700 breakfast bags. As in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, there were leftovers – in this case two large bins of meatballs, according to Steve Schiavone, executive director of AFF, an outreach organization founded by his mother, Rita Ungaro Schiavone, in 1974.

The Our Lady of Grace event will practically supply the needs of AFF for a full day. The group provides seven weekly frozen meals, mostly cooked by volunteers, to 2,113 shut-ins throughout the five counties of the Philadelphia area.

The need stays relatively the same, but with the economic downturn, donations are down, according to Schiavone.

“If we have to go out and buy meals it’s very expensive,” he said. “People who donate the food don’t realize how valuable it is.”

For further information on the work of Aid for Friends see

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.