‘One can make a difference’


How many shopping carts would it take to fill in 44,203 cans of fruits and vegetables?

Beats me, folks, but – believe it or not – that’s how many cans the Kearny High School Engineering Club collected this year for its fifth annual Canstruction project.

And that total – exceeding last year’s net by 14,000 – set a new record for the club, according to this year’s program coordinator David Mach.

Which was good news for hungry families in the region since those fully-stocked cans – which students assembled into various water-themed structures – ended up at seven emergency food pantries in Kearny and Newark.

First Presbyterian Church, St. Cecilia’s Church, St. Stephen’s Church, the Salvation Army of Greater Kearny and Grace United Methodist Church (the newest entry), all of Kearny, and Apostles’ House & Shelter and St. John’s Soup Kitchen, both of Newark, run those pantries.

Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle, an active member of the Optimist Club of Kearny which was one of many donors to this year’s Canstruction drive, said the collections are particularly significant because “all of the pantries are low at this point of the year.”

Added Doyle: “We tend to have [food] drives in February and during Thanksgiving but hunger goes 12 months of the year. Because most of our civic clubs don’t meet during the warm weather, there’s a lull of activity and the pantries are desperate this time of the year so it’s good we have Canstruction.”

Virginia Bannon, who presides over the pantry at St. Cecilia’s Parish, said last week that 102 families were currently registered with the food bank. “We average 25 to 30 per week and we’ll probably end up with 150 families by the end of the year. It’s a godsend to get the Canstruction delivery now because we were pretty low. It’s a blessing.”

This year’s campaign, said Mach, also hauled in a whopping $26,737.87 in donations, most of which was used to purchase the cans but about $2,500 was tapped for “operational expenses,” including advertisements, stamps and postage fees and T-shirts for the 21 participating KHS students and staff.

Teachers Melody LaRossa, Charles Polk and Maryanne Moran mentored the students, Larry Santos oversaw Canstruction finances and Kiko Doran, Christine Jablonski and Paul Rogers were advisers to first-time coordinator Mach.

Aside from individual, group and corporate contributions, ranging from $10 up to $10,000, offsetting some of the program costs, Kearny Canstruction also benefited from volunteer help from Pathways to Independence, Kearny PBA and FMBA members, Bower & Co., Marjam Supply Co., Moran Automotive & Towing and others who used their private vehicles to transport cans and supplies, load and offload them, Mach said.

Among those helpers were members of the fraternity Alpha Phi Delta from New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, Rutgers-Newark student athletes and Catholic Youth Organization, he said.

Plywood sheets – needed for wood platforms to anchor the columns of can structures – were donated, in part, by Marjam and some were left over from last year. A KHS shop teacher cut the sheets down to the size desired, he said.

Additionally, Mach said, Ambrosia Foods of Upper Saddle River donated more than 9,000 larger-sized cans and containers weighing in at 9,050 pounds, containing rice, peaches, pears, fruit salad, red peppers, along with 138 cans of tuna, all of which were delivered to the two Newark pantries which had the biggest need for them, according to Mach.

A friendly competition between Washington and Garfield Elementary Schools resulted in each school collecting about 2,000 cans each that went to the Canstruction effort, Mach said.

For the first time, the Archdiocese of Newark allowed access to a portion of its Youth Retreat Center (the former Boystown center) for the previously nomadic KHS can troopers.

“Location probably has been one of our biggest issues,” Mach said. “We needed a place that students could get to and from during school hours, where tons of cans would be going in and out between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the school week and for weekend deliveries.

“The amount of generosity we experienced from everyone was just overwhelming,” he said.

And it was enough to account for a “surplus” of $9,700 left unspent which, Mach said, will be divided among the pantries to purchase more food.

But, of course, none of this would have happened without the effort put forth by the students who applied the theories learned from science, technology, engineering and math – coupled with computer algorithms – to put together Canstructions of varying sizes in the images of a lighthouse, crab, lobster, sea turtle, starfish and an octopus straddling a submarine, all with the overarching theme of “Wipe Out Hunger.”

The process wasn’t easy by any means. The lighthouse structure, for example, “was taken apart eight times” before the students found the right approach to achieve balance, Mach said.

But, at the same time, Mach said, the process “gave an opportunity for people of different cultures and faiths to work together on a common goal to help people less fortunate than themselves.”

Nine of the students had worked on previous year’s Canstruction projects: David Ferreira, Engineering Club president Gabriella Pereira, Jonathan Fernandes, Kevin Pereira, Michael Fiedzuk, Michael Alves, Jason Boyle, Melanie Hill and Michael Alves.

Two – Melanie Hill and Michael Fiedzuk – participated in the past four years’ projects.

For senior Jason Boyle, “This year was probably the most fun of the two years I’ve spent doing Canstruction.” And senior Melanie Hill confessed: “I wasn’t going to do it at first but then my friend asked me to. I’ve done it for all four years and enjoyed every second. I’ll miss it next year when I go to college. But I definitely will be back to help.”

Kearny BOE member Cecilia Lindenfelser called Canstruction “a great learning tool which lets the students have hands-on experience using engineering concepts and, at the same time, they have fun.”

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