With thanks for a first harvest

Pastor Greg
On Religion

Tomorrow we will take time to remember that first Thanksgiving feast. Four centuries ago, first-nation people shared their crops with a group of near homeless, very hungry immigrants. The generosity of growers who knew the land gave the pilgrims a sense of hope in a precarious time of transition.

There have always been “pilgrims” needing help in the midst of transitioning from journeys that have proven more difficult (or different) than expected. And there have always been individuals and organizations who have responded in positive ways. One organization that has epitomized such generosity for a quarter of a century is Rotary First Harvest.

As the Thanksgiving season approached 25 years ago, Norm Hillis, a member of the University Rotary Club, was troubled by the growing number of homeless and hungry in greater Seattle. Food banks were a new concept, and Hillis wanted to find a way to work alongside them. Convincing his neighbors to plant an extra row of vegetables in their backyard gardens, he gathered the bonus produce and contributed it to Northwest Harvest.

One Rotarian’s idea caught on. Before long, other Rotary clubs were working together to find surplus crops. The combined effort became known as Rotary First Harvest with its own staff and organization. When I joined Mercer Island Rotary two years ago, I was unaware just how critical our local club is to the success of Rotary First Harvest. I soon learned that Mercer Island Rotarians log more volunteer hours than any other club in the area.

Perhaps one reason for this disproportional participation is the fact that David Bobanik, a Mercer Island resident (and member of our club), is the executive director of Rotary First Harvest. With two other employees, he oversees an operational budget of $270,000 that results in the acquisition and distribution of $11 million worth of food. In any given year, surplus crops from 50 to 60 farms are donated for reprocessing and transported by trucking companies that donate their time, labor and drivers. Isn’t that amazing?

As I learned more about Rotary’s creative and extremely effective approach to nourish the lives of the less-fortunate in our area, I realized why the fabric of this service club was a natural fit for a man of the cloth like me. Rotary’s motto, “service above self,” echoes the words of a first-century rabbi who claimed “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

I wasn’t content to just hear about Rotary First Harvest, however. I wanted to experience how it works firsthand. Last summer, my middle daughter Allison was home from college in Illinois. Because I know her heart for the less-fortunate, I asked her if she would like to come with me on a Saturday morning to the Rotary First Harvest operation beneath the Magnolia bridge. She jumped at the opportunity. Together, we worked in hairnet and aprons with about two dozen other volunteers, sorting, bagging and boxing 40,000 pounds of carrots. Bugs Bunny jokes aside, both of us left the warehouse with a smile on our faces. There is something deeply gratifying about giving of yourself to enrich the lives of those who are struggling just to make it. Simply put, giving to others guarantees a happy heart.

No wonder the joy of this season need not be limited to gathering with family and friends around a table laden with sumptuous food. The joy of Thanksgiving is rooted in more than just being grateful for God’s undeserved blessings. It is a joy that is primarily found serving those who have less than we do.

As I count my blessings this week, I am grateful for those who continue to teach me what service above self looks like. I am indebted to my colleagues at Mercer Island Rotary and the other clubs in our district that support Rotary First Harvest. I thank God for my wife Wendy and our three daughters who consistently model for me how to put the needs of others above our own.

Pastor Greg Asimakoupoulos is the head of the Mercer Island Covenant Church and a regular contributor to the Reporter.

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