MLK Meal Marathon volunteers work in assembly line-fashion to prepare 2,000 meal bags for distribution to outreach agencies in Burlington, Mercer and Camden Counties and in Philadelphia.
MLK Meal Marathon volunteers work in assembly line-fashion to prepare 2,000 meal bags for distribution to outreach agencies in Burlington, Mercer and Camden Counties and in Philadelphia.

When the third Monday in January rolls around each year, there’s no question about how Alka Gomez and her three daughters spend their Martin Luther King Day holiday – participating in St. Mary of the Lakes Parish’s MLK Meals Marathon.

PHOTO GALLERY: MLK Meals Marathon in Medford

“We try to volunteer as much as possible,” Gomez said, whether it’s in the local library or an area soup kitchen or baking cookies for other charitable causes. 

“And it’s important to help others in need, especially when they are in need of food,” Gomez said. What makes volunteering on Martin Luther King Day even more meaningful, Gomez continued, is knowing that we are following Dr. King’s example.

“He helped everyone no matter who they were, where they were from, their race or their religion. Dr. King was about humans reaching out to humans and that’s what we should do, help others who are in need,” Gomez said. “That was his dream.”

Gomez and her daughters, Melaika, a high school freshman, and sixth-grade twins, Melissa and Melody, were among the more than 200 volunteers who arrived at St. Mary of the Lakes School bright and early the morning of Jan. 20, ready to participate in the fourth annual MLK Meals Marathon, hosted and organized by the parish’s youth YES ministry.

“The MLK Meals Marathon is one of our most well-attended events,” said Linda Xerri, parish youth minister and school religion coordinator, as she explained that the event had started four years ago when the parish sponsored a “100 Days of Discipleship” campaign during which parishioners were asked to develop titles for evangelizing their ministries and promote discipleship within the community. The MLK Meals Marathon was one way the YES Ministry members sought to provide an intergenerational experience of service within the parish.

“It was an overwhelming success and has since become a regular offering hosted and organized by our YES Ministry,” said Xerri, noting that parishioners of all ages come together on the national holiday to provide outreach to area shelters in South Jersey and Philadelphia. The marathon initially began with making lunch bags but has expanded to include preparing blankets, hygiene kits and after-school snack bags.

Xerri said that the goal for the 2020 marathon was to prepare 2,000 complete meal bags to be given to outreach agencies in Burlington, Mercer and Camden Counties as well as in Philadelphia. In addition to the meal bags, 100 nylon knapsacks filled with toiletries such as body wash, washcloths, dental items and  hand sanitizer were given to LUCY (Lifting Up Camden’s Youth), an after-school outreach program for at-risk youth and to Joseph House, a homeless shelter in Camden. Each meal bag contained a sandwich, a piece of fruit, snacks, bottled water or fruit juice and a prayer card.

A special addition to this year’s morning, she noted, was the banner that several YES members were making for the upcoming Diocesan Youth Conference to be held in Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River.  The banner, which reflects the conference theme, “Inspired, ‘You Are the Light of the World," had in its center, an image of a cross that’s surrounded by the sun. The rays of the sun were creatively depicted by the painted handprints that marathon participants were invited to place on the banner.

Acknowledging that the Meals Marathon is but one of numerous outreach efforts taking place throughout the country on Martin Luther King Day, Xerri said she believes the idea for a National Day of Service in honor of Dr. King’s legacy stems from a statement he made about people being encouraged to rise above the concerns of individualism and focus on the broader concerns of humanity.

“I think that in 2020, this challenge to focus on the greater good of humanity is so very important because the young people in our world are being inundated with ‘me-centric’ messages,” Xerri said. “As Christians, we are meant to live in community with one another and to share our time, talent and treasure with those less fortunate than ourselves.”

The participants all agreed that there was no better way to spend their day off from school or work than participating in the MLK Meals Marathon and knowing they were following in the spirit of Dr. King.

Melaika Gomez, a freshman in Shawnee High School and YES youth group member, smiled as she thought of a quote she often hears her pastor, Father Daniel Swift, saying: “Many hands make light work.” As she looked around the bustling gymnasium and saw the many people who turned out to do a service that would help others, she thought of all Dr. King did to promote equality among all people.

“He made a lasting impact,” she said.

Amanda McNally, a senior in Seneca High School and YES youth group member, also thought it was awesome to have more than 200 people who were willing to help with the marathon .

"Dr. King was all about spreading love and promoting rights for everyone “no matter who you were,” McNally said. “And what we are doing here today, is our way to spread love to others.”