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God’s timing: ‘Food for Haiti’ event at Bethel was among first for Numana

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It began at Bethel College with a student e-mail message sent in mid-January.

“Help Haiti!” sophomore Andrew McNary wrote on Jan. 14. “For those of you who want to help out with the disaster in Haiti, here is the event for you!”

The message went on to invite participation in meal packaging, Jan. 15-16 at the El Dorado Civic Center, organized by Bethel graduate Rick McNary’s charitable organization, Numana Inc. Less than a month later, similar events had taken place at the Kansas Coliseum, Wichita State University and, Feb. 10, in Bethel College’s Memorial Hall.

Students, faculty, staff and people from North Newton, Newton and the surrounding areas – the youngest about 4, the oldest in their 80s – packaged the ingredients for 220,750 meals. Each packet contains a special formula of rice, soy protein, dehydrated vegetables and vitamins which, when reconstituted with hot water (bottled water accompanies meal shipments), will feed six. The packets can be stored for up to three years – but, Numana staff told the Bethel workers, the packets they had put together would be on the ground in Haiti within a week.

For Rick McNary, the story goes back eight years, to when he was pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation in Potwin, who led mission trips to Central America. His son Andrew was 12, playing baseball with a group of Nicaraguan children, using a stick for a bat. A tiny girl, about five years old, came up to Rick.

She was “filthy, smelly and beautiful,” he remembers. She put her arms around his neck and asked him to feed her because she was starving. Much later, when he had finally managed to stop crying, he says, he knew that the course of his life had changed. “What I wanted,” he says, “was to feed hungry people and to get as many people in the U.S. to help as I could.”

Over the ensuing years, a group of friends came together with whom Rick could talk and pray about his vision. He found the “recipe” for a high-protein, vitamin-rich, non-perishable meal. He made an important contact with the Salvation Army, which has a high success rate of being able to deliver aid where it’s needed. He formed a board of directors, with former Senators Bob Dole (Kansas) and George McGovern (South Dakota) as honorary members. Research convinced him that feeding schoolchildren is one of the most effective ways to build capacity in poor countries – alleviating hunger to promote education.

The organization got a name – “Numana” is meant to evoke biblical manna, although it is by design a 501(c)3, rather than a para-church, organization – corporate sponsors and donors of food and packaging material, including the boxes. Just last year, the board settled on Haiti as the destination for the first food shipment of 285,120 meal packets, enough to fill a shipping container.

That was the number of packets that came together at the first Numana packaging event in the El Dorado Civic Center, Dec. 29-30, 2009. Two weeks later, the earthquake struck Haiti. A Salvation Army official called Rick. “Can we airlift that food to Haiti?” he asked. “And can you get us more?”

So Numana organized the Jan.15-16 event in El Dorado, this time putting together almost 700,000 meals. The official called near midnight at the end of that event to tell an exhausted Rick that the first packages of Numana food were now being dropped into Haiti on pallets.

The next morning, Rick says, he and his wife, Christine, got up at 5 to pray together as they do almost every day. As they prayed, Christine began to cry. When he asked her why she was crying, she said, “Don’t you get it? Our first packages of food from Numana are dropping into Haiti from heaven.”

With Andrew a current Bethel student and Rick a Bethel graduate, it was natural for Rick to contact administrators to ask if the college would like to host a packaging event. Dale Schrag, campus pastor, took a deep breath and said, “OK, let’s do it.”

Bethel had an ambitious goal of 250,000 meals packaged in eight hours – and would have made that had the rice not run out after a little over seven.

“The folks from Numana were surprised and incredibly impressed with both the number of participants and the efficiency and dedication of those participants,” Schrag said. “It was an amazing day, and I’m not sure I have ever been prouder of Bethel College.”

Although there had been talk of cancelling classes so students could spend time packaging, the academic dean decided instead to encourage faculty to bring their classes to Mem Hall, which a number did.

Ada Schmidt-Tieszen, professor of social work, came with her Assessment of Human Systems class. “We talked about it [in Monday’s class],” she said. “We’re social workers. This is a social justice issue. Some students wouldn’t have been able to come at any other time.”

Nathan Bartel, associate professor of English, took all three of his Wednesday classes to Mem Hall. “The ethic of service – one of the four core ethics in Bethel’s mission statement – is one that needs constant maintenance,” he said.

Numana’s original goal for its first year of operation was 1 million meals. By the end of March, Rick says, the organization is on track to package close to 10 million, with events in the works for Kansas City and Chicago.

“All the success is from God,” Rick says. “This is the only miracle, besides my children, that I’ve been able to be part of.

“How did we know to go to Haiti at this time? One thing I’ve learned over the years is to pay attention to what God is doing.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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