By Karen Zautyk
Several years ago, Paul Rogers of Kearny visited a unique exhibit in Manhattan. Sponsored by a group called CANstruction, it featured wonderfully imaginative “sculptures” that students created from canned goods.
Following the project, the food would be donated to the needy.
We’d guess that 99% of the people who saw that exhibit left it thinking, “That’s nice.” And then went about their business.
However, Rogers is not 99% of people. He left inspired. He left determined to bring CANstruction to his hometown.
And what started with one man has expanded into an annual event involving high school and college students, political and community and business leaders — all united in a project that not only fosters creativity but raises awareness of the continuing problem of hunger. And, yes, there is such a problem in Kearny and surrounding communities. It may not be obvious, but it’s there.
We recall the 2013 CANstruction launch when a local pastor noted that his church’s food pantry fed an average of 100 Kearny families each month. Those attending — most of them people active in the community — actually gasped.
The 2015 CANstruction project, the fourth for the town, was formally announced earlier this month at an Optimist Club luncheon featuring guest speakers Mayor Alberto Santos, Kearny High School Principal Al Gilson, and Father Joe Mancini, pastor of St. Stephen’s Church.
This year, Mancini has graciously offered the auditorium at St. Stephen’s School on Midland Ave. as the site for the construction and display of the sculptures. If you’re not familiar with the project, be aware that an auditorium-sized venue is required. The sculptures can be massive. One year, they included a canned-food replica of the Kearny H.S. stadium. Okay, not actual-size, but pretty darn big.
Members of the KHS Engineering Club, supervised by teachers Melody La Rossa and Charles Polk, will design and assemble the structures, using canned goods donated by local merchants, businesses and organizations.
Since the inaugural Kearny CANstruction in 2012, nearly 72,000 cans have been contributed in total. Project co-chairpersons Rogers, a retired Kearny F.D. captain, and Julie Smith, branch manager of Valley National Bank, hope this year to surpass a 100,000 grand total. The odds are good, since donations have steadily increased year-byyear. In 2012, the tally was 19,965. In 2013, 23,500.
Last year, an amazing 28,515.
As usual, the theme for the annual project is a guarded secret and the public won’t know until the big reveal in the spring. But we shall report on it when it happens.
And after it happens, all that food will go to the needy. This year’s recipients will be the food pantries of St. Stephen’s, St. Cecilia’s and the First Presbyterian Church, the Salvation Army of Greater Kearny, St. John’s Soup Kitchen and Apostle’s House Family Shelter, both in Newark.
“When the exhibits are all done,” Rogers told The Observer, “Rutgers Newark sends over a bus of soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball and swim team members. About 30 kids dismantle, count, sort, box and distribute the food.
“The shuttle bus goes back and forth for the day. Some of the students stay at the St. John Soup Kitchen and the Apostle’s House shelter to unload and fill the shelves.
“They work very hard, and they get a first-hand look at food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.”
Santos called CANstruction “an excellent way to bring community attention to hunger and to do it in a creative way.”
Praising the students who “plan, design and build the artistic structures,” the mayor cited the energy and talents they bring to the projects and the fact that CANstruction is an opportunity “for young people to lead the way” in raising awareness of hunger.
“Maybe people don’t see it, but it’s out there,” Santos said. There is definitely a need.”
As for CANstruction and the man who brought it to Kearny, Paul Rogers, the mayor noted, “This really is one of those great community stories regarding individual action” and what that can accomplish.