By Ron Leir
Call it the miracle of the cans. Call it part of the global struggle to end hunger. Call it what you will.
The point is this: What started out as a suggestion by a concerned Kearny High School alumnus turned into a powerful force that unleashed volunteer efforts by inspired students, government and the corporate community.
For needy families in Kearny, it will mean the replenishment of three churchrun emergency food pantries and the re-stocking of several soup kitchens in Newark.
The enterprise began a few months ago when KHS Principal Cynthia Baumgartner got a phone call from retired Fire Capt. Paul Rogers, Class of 1977, telling her about an interesting exhibit he’d seen in New York.
It was an elaborate studentassembled giant-sized construction project, made up, almost exclusively, of canned goods which were to be donated to local food banks for distribution to community emergency feeding programs.
And it was sponsored by a nonprofit group known as “Canstruction,” whose mission is to hold annual designand- build competitions to build these type of structures, to raise public awareness of world hunger and to feed needy men, women and children.
“Paul Rogers was so enthused, he wanted to find a group of young people to help make his dream (of furnishing food for the hungry) come true,” Baumgartner recalled.
So it was decided that KHS students would undertake a Canstruction project but only as a “dry run,” Baumgartner said.
She endorsed the program as a reflection of her belief that, “What kids learn in the classroom they need to use in the real world as service learning: to serve the community.”
The principal enlisted the help of architecture instructor Melody Larossa and science teacher Chuck Polk, co-advisers of the school’s engineering club, along with 35 sophomores, juniors and seniors who are members of the class and/or club.
A number of the participating students have told Baumgartner that the experience has turned out to be “probably one of the best things they done in their high school career.”
Many were “nervous” going into the project, Baumgartner said, “since it was unchartered territory.”
But go in they did, starting about two months ago, taking one class period per week to meet as a group with their advisers to discuss what they wanted to build and how to go about it.
Once they settled on two construction projects – “Feed the Globe” (a globe with a fork and knife attachments) and the KHS stadium – they created Computer Aided Drawings (CADs), calculated dimensions for their products and began assembling models, all in preparation for the actual construction which, even though they wouldn’t be part of a Canstruction competition, would still be done within a restricted time period.
Stepping up to offer her support, at Rogers’ request, was Town Council President Carol Jean Doyle, who helped secure an off-site location where students could practice and where the thousands of cans needed could be stored.
Unfortunately, Doyle said, about a month and a half ago, a snag developed when, after the building had been loaded with tables and equipment and many of the cans, “we were told it had been rented (to another party).” Yet another complication came about when Larossa had to relocate her architecture class due to the ongoing interior construction at the high school.
Meanwhile, Doyle, as a member of the Museum Committee, successfully appealed to that group to make available space at the Kearny Public Library as a can staging and practice area.
For the next five weeks, students continued working together as two teams to coordinate plans for the two construction projects.
One of the technical problems that they had to solve, Doyle said, was getting cans “with the right colors” to represent areas of water, greenery and mountains on the simulated globe. “It was a lot of trial and error,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful experience watching students work together off-site.”
Other globe-related issues that needed to be resolved were “fi xing the shape of the continents” and fi guring out what type of material would be best suited to support each of the 20 levels of cans comprising the globe structure, said KHS junior Steve Vivar, 17.
Ultimately, the team came up with plywood as the way to go, Steve said.
What made the project appealing to Steve was that “you can donate (the cans) and still have fun. That makes it a whole lot better.” Having a niece in Peru and a cousin in England working as architects is pushing him in the same direction, Steve said. “And if I could do engineering at the same time,” he added, “that would be amazing.”
Also part of the globe team is 16-year-old junior Jaquelyn Lazo – one of 10 girls on the 20-member team – who founded the KHS engineering club after her older sister Justine had shared exciting news about attending an engineering conference in Ohio.
Leading the stadium construction team were senior Jose Quinones, 17, who was also part of the dance team that performed at last Friday’s KHS International Festival, and sophomore Anthony Belo, 16. They helpfully explained that it took 300 tomato sauce cans to form the stadium walls, 700 soup cans for the stands and bleachers, 200 cans of sweet peas for the turf fi eld, 21 cans of peaches for the goal posts and scoreboard, 150 cans of tuna to outline the field’s white lines and hash marks, plus a few silver-painted wooden dowels with suction cups attached for the light towers. They also used cans of baked beans for the stadium’s extension and cans of mixed vegetables for the base of the stadium. Still to come, when The Observer visited, was a New York skyline, they said.
Last Thursday, starting at 8:30 a.m., both teams gathered in KHS gym to begin assembling the projects and, by 2:45 p.m., they were done. Some members of the public responded to invitations to view the exhibits that day and the day after.
Doyle said the Kearny community came through with nearly 20,000 canned goods plus about $20,000 in monetary donations, much of which was used to purchase appropriately color-coordinated cans still needed for the projects. Kearny ShopRite, alone, donated 7,500 cans of food, Doyle said.
One-third of the canned goods is going to the First Presbyterian Church of Arlington’s food pantry; one-third is being divided between the pantries of St. Cecilia’s and St. Stephen’s; and the balance is targeted for soup kitchens in Newark run by Rutgers University, Doyle said.
The deliveries are coming at a critical time: St. Cecilia’s had to close its pantry in February after having served its capacity of 100 families and St. Stephen’s managed to provide for 15 families, according to Doyle.
“Everybody’s desperate,” she said.