Mennonite Central Committee’s mobile meat-canning season — the fall-to-spring activity where 30,000 volunteers help to preserve meat in cans for people in crisis around the world — has begun.
This year, though, the program is having difficulty because the canning crew is only half full. Only two men have committed to serve on the four-member team and one more just agreed to begin working in January. Four are needed to operate the mobile cannery at capacity throughout the season.
As a result, less meat will be canned this year than the 643,067 cans that were filled at 31 locations across the U.S. and Canada last year. The fall schedule has been abbreviated. Some locations were canceled, others combined.
The mobile cannery was set up at the MCC Central States warehouse in North Newton, Kan., for three weeks, through Nov. 17. Groups from Hutchinson, Kan., and Milford and Henderson, Neb., came to North Newton instead of the cannery going to them.
Plans for the second half of the season, which has the fullest schedule, are uncertain, said John Hillegass, MCC’s canning and trucking manager.
“We need one more volunteer to carry out the fullest part of the schedule from January to May,” he said. “That’s the immediate need, but we also need three more canners for the 2019-2020 season who are willing to volunteer for two years.”
Paraguayans Michael Doerksen, who brings canning experience from last year, and Tristan Pries, new to the assignment, are the current volunteers. This fall, two MCC staff members who have commercial driver’s licenses to drive the mobile cannery, as well as canning experience, have been trading off helping the duo.
Hillegass said it’s hard to pin down exactly why finding volunteers for the canning crew has been so difficult. Whether it’s the healthy job market, a decreased interest in long-term service, or some other reason, Hillegass still hopes people will be attracted to the unique experience that canning provides.
As a canner from 2004 to 2007, Hillegass says he values the connections and friendships he made that have lasted beyond his time of service.
“I can travel throughout the Midwest and Northeast and not have to stay in a hotel because I have so many relationships that started with my willingness to serve on the canner,” he said. “It’s a huge blessing.”
With a smile, he noted that he met his wife while he was traveling with the canner, just like his dad, who met Hillegass’ mother the same way.
But the purpose of canning, bringing help to suffering people, is what really motivates him. Every other year, the canners visit people who receive the canned meat, to see the impact of their labor.
While visiting Ukraine in 2017, Hillegass met Nikolai Proshak, a pastor who directs Believing, Hoping, Loving, an organization that uses MCC’s canned meat to feed children staying at orphanages and those living with foster families. Many of the children have been displaced because of hostilities in eastern
Ukraine, and their parents can no longer afford to care for them.
“The gift of canned meat has allowed them to help way more children than they would otherwise be able to help,” Hillegass said. “I was so thankful for what he was doing.”
He remembers Proshak’s surprise when the pastor learned about the volunteers who come together to can the turkey.
“He told me he always assumed that MCC had a factory where turkey goes in one end and the cans of meat come out the other,” Hillegass said. “Once he heard the story of how all these people come together to volunteer their time, money and labor, he was totally blown away.”
Hillegass invited Proshak to come to the U.S. and help volunteer, which he did six months later while he attended a pastor’s conference. At a canning site in Virginia, Proshak ran the machine that seals the lids on the cans and met many volunteers. The experience brought tears of gratitude to his eyes because he was so thankful for what he had witnessed.
Whether in Ukraine, Central America or Haiti, Hillegass said people are always surprised to hear how the mobile cannery operates and how many people come together to volunteer.
“It is a privilege to work alongside the numerous communities in the U.S. and Canada who host the mobile cannery every year,” he said. “My prayer is it can continue.”