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Courtesy of Dennis Marcom and Peter Stolley

Dennis Marcom and Peter Stolley working the World Central Kitchen booth at the Medyka, Poland pedestrian border crossing from Ukraine.

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Saving the world, one meal at time

Two local men go to Poland to volunteer with World Central Kitchen to feed Ukrainian refugees, and see first-hand the healing power of food in a crisis

As Dennis Marcom tells it, his friend and neighbor in Walpole N.H., Peter Stolley, arrived in his kitchen at the beginning of April and said, “What do you think about going to Poland and volunteering for World Central Kitchen for a week?”

Two weeks later, the two retired friends were on a plane, headed for a town near the Polish/Ukrainian border, spending their time making sandwiches, to the tune of 6,000 to 7,000 sandwiches a day as part of a 25-person crew.

How did this all come about?

World Central Kitchen, or WCK, is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) begun by Spanish celebrity chef José Andrés in 2010 in the wake of the massive and ruinous earthquake in Haiti.

The Haitian program went so well, the nonprofit was established to provide essential food during a crisis.

Based in Washington D.C., the World Central Kitchen website (wck.org) states, “We fed an island after Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico. We fed tens of millions struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. We put boots on the ground when a blast devastated Beirut, bushfires ripped through Australia, and a volcano transformed a Spanish island.”

World Central Kitchen’s premise is that after a disaster, “food is the fastest way to rebuild our sense of community. We can put people back to work preparing it, and we can put lives back together by fighting hunger. Cooking and eating together is what makes us human,” states their website.

Over the past 12 years, the organization and its volunteers have provided food after disasters in Puerto Rico, Beirut, Australia, and other countries.

“I accidentally came across the Facebook page of a man who was volunteering in Przemyśl, Poland for 14 days for WCK,” Stolley said. “I saw his post on his second day in Poland. By the time he was finished with his commitment, I wanted to go.”

“I thought about who I might ask to go with me. I’m retired. It’s hard to find people who didn’t have responsibilities and could just drop everything and go,” he remembered.

From there, Stolley connected with Marcom’s wife and a friend of hers who are both Polish, to ask questions about traveling to Poland. At the end of that meeting, Stolley, his mind made up to volunteer, strolled into Marcom’s kitchen and asked his friend and neighbor to join up. The trip quickly took shape.

Two weeks later, the pair found themselves in Poland in a huge kitchen, where they and their fellow volunteers cranked out those sandwiches at the rate of 1,200 to 1,600 per hour.

A volunteer commitment

“We signed up to do a volunteer stint of seven days,” said Stolley, explaining the men’s commitment, which includes paying for their travel and accommodations.

“The work takes place in a kitchen that was set up right after the Ukrainian war began,” he said. “It was huge — about 25,000 square feet — and was fully functional in a week’s time. WCK brought in new equipment, and very quickly they were serving 30,000 meals per day out of that kitchen.”

“The kitchen was gigantic,” Marcom added. “They had eight enormous, gas-fired paella pans so big you needed a paddle to move the food around inside them. The paella pans each held 250 gallons of food. It was an incredible and efficient kitchen and put together so quickly!”

Volunteers are asked to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. There are two options: preparing meals or serving on the front lines at food distribution points.

“We both chose, despite our lack of culinary skill, to work in the kitchen,” Stolley said with a hearty laugh.

WCK works around two basic ideas. The first is to make hot comfort food for the culture in which the organization is responding. That meant in this case popular foods like pierogi, a type of dumpling, and golombki, boiled cabbage leaves wrapped around a filling of rice and meat.

WCK doesn’t offer fresh ingredients, a type of assistance that would require local people to be able to prepare the food themselves. Instead, the organization makes local dishes, along with additional “pocket meals” to go.

That’s how Stolley and Marcom ended up creating all those sandwiches.

“We were a crew of 25 volunteers,” Stolley explained. “It happens to be pretty good food; we ate it ourselves. [The sandwiches] were made of nutritious components and are designed to be life sustaining.”

The sandwiches the men crafted included a big roll, two pats of mayonnaise, four slices of cheese and four slices of ham. The idea is to be able to hand them out so that refugees can put them in a pocket and eat the sandwich as a day’s meal as they travel.

“WCK wants to serve people a hot meal and then be able to take another one with them, as they leave,” said Marcom.

“Most mornings, before making sandwiches, we packed up some super-high-protein filler, like bread pudding, that was warm from the baker’s oven. The food we created is high calorie to keep people fueled,” said Stolley.

“We had a good crew, very organized,” he added. “We felt fortunate to be on such a good team. In fact, we worked hard enough that we were usually finished by 5 p.m. or so. We were told that the previous week the crew was a bit slower, so they had to work the allotted 12-hour shift to get all their sandwiches made.”

A varied network of volunteers

In the evenings, the pair stayed at a local bed and breakfast on the border that had 10 rooms, all of which were filled with other volunteers from World Central Kitchen and other relief organizations.

Both men were deeply touched by the stories shared there, including from one other guest, a nurse practitioner from the United States.

“She told us how she would see these refugees walking across the border,” remembered Stolley. “They were so beaten down and exhausted from their walk of many days, escaping Ukraine. Then they would sit down, have a hot meal, and they would be able to relax, breathe, and consider their next step.”

“Providing this food really does make a difference,” he continued. “The people with whom we shared the B&B had dropped everything they were doing and came to help. There were doctors, nurses, a young French journalist, and a mother and son from Odessa who were escaping their homeland in Ukraine.”

Marcom and Stolley met a one-time federal prosecutor from Kentucky, who dropped everything and came to the border dressed in a big pink bunny suit. He greeted children as they crossed the border. These young ones, upon seeing this human rabbit, would break into a huge grin, and then their mothers would fall apart. The stress of the refugees was apparent.

“We heard so many stories about the large man in the big pink bunny suit that would just break your heart,” Marcom said.

“Aside from all these terrific NGOs like Rescuers Without Borders (Sauveteurs.org), there were so many people who just arrived to help,” Stolley added.

Another kitchen volunteer who runs a café in a town of 300 people in rural Iowa had a contact in Ukraine who asked him if he could purchase a $10,000 drone.

“He bought it and brought it over, putting it in the overhead compartment on the airplane to Poland,” Stolley said. “He didn’t want to let it out of his sight. He’s one example of the kinds of freelancers who just want to do some good if they can.”

The men were told of another Ukrainian child who was given a stuffed toy. Overcome with emotion, he asked the volunteer who handed it to him if the animal could grant him one wish.

He totally broke down holding the toy. The volunteers around the child were deeply touched.

“Since I’ve returned, many people have asked me if volunteering was depressing, and I tell them, “No, it was incredibly inspiring,” said Marcom.

“In the midst of all this horror, there is this very positive element: all these people from all over the world who just want to help in any way that they can,” Stolley added. “It was very moving.”

On their last day at the border, they met a doctor who lives in Chicago who went around to his neighbors and asked for donations of suitcases, which he filled with much-needed medical supplies. The doctor brought these needed supplies to Rescuers Without Borders, and American Airlines didn’t charge him for the extra baggage.

Kathy Stickel, a veteran army combat lifesaver and a friend of Marcom’s, happens to be fluent in Russian. When the war began, she loaded up with supplies and brought them to four homes that she rented, now filled with pregnant Ukrainian refugees. The first baby in this group is about to be born.

Marcom and Stolley did have one night distributing food that they made, and that shift happened to take place on Orthodox Easter Sunday in Ukraine. They learned the Ukrainian words for the chicken and potatoes they were serving.

“We felt it is important to spend at least a day seeing the results of our cooking efforts,” said Stolley, “and we were deeply touched by the refugees.”

‘Plenty to do all around us’

How has their trip changed their thinking or their lives?

After much animated conversation, Dennis Marcom becomes quiet and reflective.

“I probably won’t go on another vacation again,” he said. “It seems to me that this is the way to travel, to do good in the world. I realized I can do good with my time. I can volunteer. It is a big world out there with much to do.”

Both men have been active volunteers in their communities, but their experience in Poland was on a much different level.

“Since my return, I’ve really been paying more attention,” said Stolley.

“There is plenty to do right around us. I think it’s about kindness,” he observed. “All you must do is one little thing to make a difference in people’s lives.”

“Help that little old lady across the street,” Stolley said. “Show kindness to one another. It really does make a difference. There are so many opportunities to roll up your sleeves. Be more involved helping people.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #663 (Wednesday, May 11, 2022). This story appeared on page A1.

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