By Karen Zautyk
What can you do with a can of tuna? I mean other than open it and mix the contents with mayo. Or use it as a paperweight.
If your imagination is equally limited, you should talk to the kids at Kearny High School. They look at a tuna can and see a statement against world hunger. Last year, the students joined in a nationwide hunger-awareness effort called “Canstruction, which entails the design and building of “massive structures” composed entirely of donated canned goods. After the projects are finished, and displayed, all the food is given to local food pantries or community food banks. The participants built a huge globe from cans, to illustrate global hunger, and a replica of the KHS stadium, complete with New York skyline in the background.
The 2012 KHS effort was such a success that the students are participating in “Canstruction” again this year. Formal announcement of the kick-off was made last week at a meeting of the Kearny Optimist Club, which is among the community sponsors of the event and whose president, Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle, has been instrumental in bringing the local project to fruition.
Among those in attendance were KHS Principal Al Gilson and Kearny Superintendent of Schools Frank Ferraro,along with representatives of the Kearny Fire Department, which provides the heavylifting: picking up purchases and donations, delivering them to the Kearny Museum (where the canstructions are initially built) and then moving same to the high school for display.
Paul Rogers, a retired KFD captain, is co-chairperson of the project, along with Julie Smith, vice president of Valley National Bank in South Kearny.
It was Rogers who first approached school administrators last year with the “Canstruction” idea after seeing one of the exhibits in New York. Although “Canstruction” is technically a nationwide competition, KHS has not officially entered its works in the contest. The students are doing it just for the love of it, and to help the less fortunate. Melody LaRossa, the KHS teacher supervising “Canstruction,” said she had 35 students participating last year, “and all of those who have not graduated are back on board.” As of last week, 30 teens had signed up, “and I know I’m going to get more,” she said.
“Every student who participated said it was the best experience they had had in school,” LaRossa added. “They love being part of something that’s giving back to people and raising awareness of hunger.”
The project chairpersons help solicit monetary donations (about $20,000 was raised in 2012) and, within the budget set for the project, the students buy the canned goods they need — based on size and colors to be incorporated into their architectual plans. There also are contributions; last year, Kearny ShopRite donated 7,500 cans of food. And what was the total number of cans used in the globe and the stadium?
At the Optimist meeting, Rogers apologized for the tally. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Last year, I said we’d get 20,000, and we got only 19,963.” Yes, 19,963.
Rogers, who is studying art history at Rutgers Newark, has recruited fellow students from that campus to help out. Kathy Lopez, a master’s degree candidate who works in the school’s Office of Student Life & Leadership, is coordinating their participation, which includes shopping for the food and serving refreshments to the KHS kids while they are devoting endless hours to building the “Canstructions.”
Rogers explained that when the project is over, the Rutgers volunteers then make a final count of the cans, divide the food into categories (veggies, fruit, tuna, etc.), box and label them and “help bring them to all the places that are getting donations.” This year, that includes the food pantries at St. Cecilia’s, St. Stephen’s and the First Presbyterian Church.
An example of raised awareness of hunger came at the meeting itself, when the pastor of Cecilia’s, the Rev. Michael Ward (“Father Mike”) told the group that his church pantry feeds “on average, about 100 families a month in the town of Kearny.” Several gasps were audible.
“It (the “Canstruction” food) does stay local,” he said. “It does help people in our town. Without the food pantry, they just wouldn’t have enough food for their kids.”
So, last year it was a massive globe and the KHS stadium. What will the students build this year?
“We have three ideas so far,” LaRossa said, “but it’s a secret.”
The “big unveiling” will come sometime in May.