Covid-19Magazine Exclusive

Help from the sky

With a thousand boxes of food leaving the Salvation Army’s Lebanon, Pa., Corps warehouse five days a week, Lieutenants Marlon and Ivonne Rodriguez desperately needed help with assembling and packing them.

The warehouse serves as a food distribution center for 11 Salvation Army corps. Staffers come and pick up food to give out in their local area.

“We were in great need of volunteers to help assemble boxes and pack food. We have 1,200 boxes going out each weekday. We did not have the manpower to get that done,” Marlon said.

When leaders from the Civil Air Patrol called and offered their services, the lieutenants didn’t know what to expect.

“We didn’t know the amount of help they could give,” Marlon said. “We were expecting maybe two or three people. When they arrived for the first time with a group of about 25 young people, all dressed in their military uniforms, and wearing masks, they were ready to go. They said, ‘You just tell us what to do.’”

Marlon marveled at how quickly the group worked. “What we were doing in four hours, these kids did in an hour and a half. We could not have done it without them. They were so organized and ready for the task,” he said.

Ivonne added, “We were impressed. They were doing it so fast. It is a blessing. I love it.”

Bill Bishop, the volunteer coordinator of the food distribution, agrees. “Today, they stacked the pallets and cleaned the entire building, and got everything ready for tomorrow. Anything we need, they do. They are doing a great job,” he said.

The cadets, who range in age from 12 to 18, are coming from Civil Air Patrol squadrons based in Lebanon, Harrisburg, Reading, and York. The Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, is a public service organization that carries out emergency service missions when needed. Its cadet program aims to transform youth into leaders through a curriculum that focuses on leadership, aerospace, fitness, and character.

Marlon said the cadets are organized and work together to get the job done.

“They come one day and assemble the boxes,” he said. “They have two assembly lines. One cadet gets the box, the next cadet turns it over, and so on down the line until the box is put together and ready to go. Then the next day, they come back and pack the food into the boxes.”

Marlon shared some insight into what motivates the young people to continue volunteering for this arduous task.

“These kids have been quarantined in their homes all this time,” he said. “They were supposed to be in the Memorial Day Parade, but that was canceled. They want to go out and help. The Salvation Army is providing the venue for them to safely work and contribute, six feet apart with masks on.

“Every day, my wife and a volunteer have been making home-cooked meals for them. The squadron leaders thank us each day for the hospitality. They are grateful.”

“They’ve given us their time,” Ivonne added. “They need to eat lunch. I try to make it fresh and healthy so everyone can enjoy it. We’ve been making pasta, sandwiches, and empanadas to give them a little taste of Spanish food. They loved the empanadas.”

Lieutenant Andy Harner, the Civil Air Patrol officer who is coordinating the volunteer effort, remarked, “These cadets are amazing. They are happy and eager to help, especially now when they have been stuck in the house for the last two months. Some of the kids are driving from York to The Salvation Army Lebanon Corps for two hours of work.”

Harner said so many cadets had signed up to help that he had to turn some away.

Ivonne’s delicious home-cooked meals were a topic of conversation recently during the cadets’ virtual meeting with their senior officer .

“The kids said the food is really good. They were joking that I missed out on the ribs and potatoes the other day at The Salvation Army,” Harner said good–naturedly.

by Eileen Lippman