Our Volunteerism at Work series explores the volunteer culture at Highmark Health, which is a longstanding component of the company’s mission, vision and values. The series will cover how Highmark Health supports employee volunteerism, profile employees who volunteer, and report on events in our communities where Highmark Health employees pitched in to make a difference.

Recently, my Highmark co-workers and I spent the day volunteering with the Commission on Economic Opportunity (CEO) in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Our northeastern Pennsylvania health plan (formerly Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, now Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield) has been partnering with CEO since 2005. This was my first time volunteering with the organization, but it was not my first time volunteering through work. In the past, I chose company volunteer opportunities for employees that met two criteria: it had to be with a friend and it had to be familiar. Each of those experiences had been fulfilling in its own way, but I also felt that I needed to choose an opportunity that pushed me harder.

When the call for volunteers came for CEO, I decided to step outside the familiar and give it a try. I was rewarded with a very enriching experience — and learned plenty about this great organization along the way.

Mission: “People Helping People”

Weinberg Regional Food Bank and McGowan Center for Healthy Living

Exterior of the new Weinberg Regional Food Bank and McGowan Center for Healthy Living in Jenkins Twp., PA

Before we started our day, CEO’s volunteer coordinator King Adjei-Frimpong gave us a tour of the new facility (dedicated May 2015) to see its Weinberg Regional Food Bank and McGowan Center for Healthy Living. He also told us about CEO’s nearly 50-year impact on northeastern Pennsylvania through its mission of “people helping people.”

A multi-service nonprofit, CEO works to alleviate poverty and to assist low-income and at-risk people and families across Luzerne, Lackawanna, Wyoming and Susquehanna counties. CEO has strong relationships with many other nonprofit agencies and is involved in a wide range of outreach and direct impact programs.

My volunteer hours supported CEO’s efforts to fight hunger and support nutrition — specifically, packing boxes of food for its Senior Food Boxes program. CEO also supports a summer lunch program that annually serves 2,500 to 3,000 local kids who depend on school-provided breakfast and lunch during the school year. Other programs not only distribute fresh produce, but also offer demonstrations on how to use that produce to create healthy and nutritious meals.

Last year, CEO distributed 5.3 million pounds of food — and that’s just one of their focus areas. They also have programs that support veterans, and that help people with everything from housing, utilities and employment to prescription drug access and financial management. With such a large, multi-county service area, the work of “people helping people” is never done.

Seniors Facing Hunger: A Growing Problem

From the Greatest Generation to Baby Boomers entering their senior years, getting adequate food and nutrition has become a challenge for a growing number of older Americans. Seniors with low incomes can face hard choices, like buying groceries or filling an expensive prescription. Just looking at Baby Boomers alone, one recent report from Feeding America estimated that 8 million members of that generation in the U.S. struggle with hunger.

Volunteers packing food in boxes

Looking down the line as volunteers prepare Senior Food Boxes

CEO confronts this problem in northeastern Pennsylvania through the Senior Food Boxes program I had my volunteer experience with, which is part of the federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). Low-income adults 60 years of age and older can enroll in CSFP online, or by contacting their local senior center or senior advocacy agency. Program advocates can help them to complete paperwork, gather required documents and answer any questions or concerns.

Once seniors are enrolled, programs like Senior Food Boxes give them easy access to packages of food designed to make sure they get the nutrients they need. In CEO’s service area, nearly 100 senior housing sites, senior centers and neighborhood centers serve as pickup sites.

As for “what’s in the box,” I learned about that through plenty of hands-on experience. The good news is that no one receiving a box has to worry about being a culinary genius to make use of the ingredients. Instead, it’s kind of the opposite of the popular Food Network program “Chopped” — which challenges chefs to create a meal from an unusual mix of ingredients. A Senior Food Box is all about the basics, with easy-to-use, nutritious foods that typically include:

  • Dry cereal
  • Shelf-stable milk
  • Fruit or vegetable juice
  • Canned meat
  • Canned fruits and vegetables
  • Non-meat protein (like peanut butter)
  • Pasta or rice

It’s Not Just a Box of Food, It’s Hope

By the end of our day, my fellow volunteers and I had packed countless boxes — we literally lost track after 300.

Personally, I like to think there is more than food in those boxes; hope is also given with each box, because, maybe for one, two or even seven days, someone isn’t worrying about what (or whether) they’re going to eat.

Sadly, the need is too great for any volunteer group or organization like CEO to satisfy in one day. But as King emphasized to me afterward, our group made the difference that day. Every time a volunteer walks into this or any other food bank, they can make a difference.