PERU — Twenty years in and North Country Mission of Hope is still cooking.
In about three hours one day this week in Nicaragua, the Peru-based humanitarian-aid group and 40 or so locals will mix and pack some 80,000 meals to distribute to the 23 schools in Mission of Hope's food program.
"It will save us shipping costs," Executive Director Sister Debbie Blow said. "It will use local product," therefore helping the economy.
And by inviting locals to help with this first-time project, she added, "it's another way of them not just receiving the food as a handout."
The project, in partnership with international nonprofit Fabretto, is just one on the schedule for Blow and a group of 39 volunteers on the largest mission of the year.
A prep team of seven is on the ground in Nicaragua now, readying Mission of Hope's headquarters, NiCasa, for the arrival of the rest on Tuesday, Feb. 20.
The largest contingent will leave the North Country at 7:30 p.m. Monday, driving to Newark Liberty International Airport and flying out early Tuesday.
The volunteers for this trip come not only from around upstate New York, but Albany, New Jersey, Massachusetts, North Carolina, California and even Mexico.
A total 28 are mission veterans, with 19 newcomers. Fourteen are high-school students, and two are in college.
"We also have a lot of skilled persons in various areas," Blow said.
That includes a large contingent of medical personnel who will do the usual outreach in the poor barrios and also pitch in at a women's health clinic in Managua.
Numerous eco projects are on the docket, including installation of water tanks at a number of schools.
A $4,000 grant from the two Plattsburgh Rotary clubs is helping to pay for those projects, which are crucial to the success of Mission of Hope's meal programs.
Public water is not always available, Blow said, so having a tank will allow storage.
"They can't prepare food if there's no water," she said.
The missioners will build 10 home shelters with local participation, replacing shacks made of scraps of tin and plastic.
Other work includes painting walls at two hospitals and a dermatological center, completion of a kitchen at Fray de la Pamploma School, the annual birthday party for children with HIV and distribution of rice and beans throughout the barrios.
"That becomes an increasing challenge with every mission," Blow said, "because now we have 13 barrios — we started with six."
It reveals some progress over the past 20 years but also how the need is ever present.
"We are seeing small improvement in the communities around where we are," Blow said, so they are fanning out to other areas.
SAVES ON SHIPPING
Mission of Hope was able to expand its meal program tremendously over the past few years through grants from Rise Against Hunger and Feed My Starving Children.
The food is shipped from the United States.
Volunteer grantwriter Carol Herring heard about a program elsewhere in Central America that adopted an in-country packing system. She worked for several months on organizing Mission of Hope's first test project, gaining the approval of Feed My Starving Children in the process and lining up vendors in Nicaragua, Blow said.
The rice-and-soy mixture that makes up the packaged meals costs far less in Nicaragua, she said, and Mission of Hope will still supply complementary ingredients, such as chicken.
"Instead of the shipping container costing us $7,000 to $7,500 (from the United States), this will cost us $2,500," she said.
"We're hoping within two years to establish a system in Nicaragua and process (all the meals) there. The funds saved from shipping will employ those (hired) to do it."
FEELS LIKE HOME
On Saturday, volunteers weighed in their luggage for the trip at the new Mission of Hope facility in Peru.
They packed very little for themselves, leaving room for gifts for sponsored students, painting supplies, construction tools and the like.
This was a first for the mission's permanent home after two decades of a nomadic existence in donated space.
Sitting in her new office, Blow said, "I have a window for the first time in 20 years — it's still amazing."
The new MOHtown and its renovations were paid for completely with donations earmarked for the purpose.
"People throughout the North Country and the United States were so generous," she said. "We've not had to touch one single penny of donations for (mission work)."
And now, with the renovations complete and the first group of volunteers setting off from the site, Blow said, "it feels like home."
She thought about all Mission of Hope has accomplished, both in Nicaragua and the North Country, since its inception.
"Twenty years in — I never would have dreamed."
Email Suzanne Moore: