Around 1,500 volunteers gathered at the UNI-Dome on Monday, Jan. 20 for “Pack the Dome: Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service,” the largest volunteer event held in the Cedar Valley to date.
Participants packaged meals for the Northeast Iowa Food Bank’s (NEIFB) BackPack Program in an effort to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a “day on” instead of a day off. Volunteers ranged from UNI students, faculty and staff to community members and families from Cedar Falls and beyond.
Addressing the crowd of volunteers as the day began, KWWL anchor Daniel Winn said the BackPack Program, which provides non-perishable meals and snacks for K-12 students over weekends and school breaks, currently serves over 4,000 children monthly in 145 different schools in 16 counties across northeast Iowa. Last school year, the NEIFB packed and provided over 125,000 bags in total, according to its website.
“I didn’t know that there was so much interest in the community in participating in things like this,” said Madison Sallee, a junior human resources and marketing major who regularly volunteers at the food bank, but was attending MLK Day of Service for the first time. “I know that there are small groups that go to the food bank all the time, but to see this many people is really incredible.”
At this year’s event,
volunteers assembled 48,000 bags for the BackPack Program. For each of the two shifts throughout the day, 34 assembly lines put together packages of fruit snacks, juice boxes, mac n’ cheese and other kid-friendly food items.
UNI has hosted MLK Day of Service events for the past decade, beginning a partnership with the NEIFB and the UNI Service and Leadership Council (SLC) three or four years ago, explained Kristina Kofoot, community engagement program coordinator for the university.
Previous years’ events were held in the Maucker Union ballrooms, with 700 volunteers packing 17,000 bags last year. This year, those numbers were more than doubled, thanks to a John Deere sponsorship that allowed the event to relocate to the UNI-Dome.
Kofoot said the relocation was propelled by the growing popularity of the event and demand for more volunteer spots. In addition to the Office of Community Engagement, SLC, the food bank and John Deere, other partnerships making the event possible included the Volunteer Center of Cedar Valley, Panther Pantry, AmeriCorps and the Atlantic Bottling Company.
“It’s been a dream — like, a dream — for years and it’s finally come true,” Kofoot said. “So we’re excited to be here and keep being here.”
Attendees included individuals and families, as well as several student organizations like Women in Business and residence life groups. Nearly every UNI athletic team was present, Kofoot said.
“I think it’s cool that all the different athletes get to bond together, like different teams that we don’t normally hang out with, and work together towards a goal of packing food,” said Sophia Conant, a sophomore biology major and member of the UNI soccer team.
Ashleigh Houelette, a senior biology major on the UNI swimming and diving team, said she especially appreciated a story NEIFB Director Barb Prather shared with the crowd. The true story showed the generosity of a young boy who, although he needed it himself, gave his food to a local homeless man with a greater need.
“Some people come in with stereotypes about the people the food bank serves,” Prather said. “The best way to defeat these stereotypes is for us to tell their stories, the true stories about the people we serve that show how similar they are to us.”
Also addressing volunteers was UNI Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Jim Wohlpart, who lead the crowd in an energetic wave but also reminded them of the importance of MLK Day.
“There’s an African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together,’” Wohlpart said. “We have a long, long way to go to realize the dream of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a long, long way to go. But what gives me hope is this. Take a look around you. This is how we go far; this is how we get the work done. It’s happening today at the Dome.”
“Think about yourself as a pebble in a pond, sending ripples out into the community,” he continued. “You’re making a difference.”
Those seeking to make a difference can visit the Volunteer Center of Cedar Valley’s website at vccv.org. Kofoot suggested signing up to get a monthly email with tailored volunteer opportunities or visiting their office in Maucker Union open on Mondays and Thursdays.