Hunger No More of Park Rapids began a transition to a new director in March, the first change of leadership for a humanitarian ministry that has been feeding the hungry for 16 years.
Eric Bervig is succeeding Mark Waller as director of the non-profit organization, which packages and sends meals across the border to Reynosa, Mexico.
With the new director comes an additional mission target: providing food for students at a boarding school in Jérémie, Haiti.
Aid for Reynosa
Waller started what is now Hunger No More in 2002, when he was youth pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Park Rapids, now known as Faithbridge Church.
"We would take our youth group down to the Cities," he said, "and we came across the organization Feed My Starving Children. We asked them if there was something we could do."
Feed My Starving Children referred the youth group to an organization now known as Kids Against Hunger, based in Omaha, Neb., which in turn helped the Park Rapids-area organization get started.
"For most of our years, we were Kids Against Hunger," said Waller, noting that it was only a volunteer group until a couple years ago, when it legally registered as a non-profit organization.
Hunger No More collects donations and travels around northwestern Minnesota, having food packaging events with church groups, school classes and local organizations. Using supplies obtained from Food for Kids in Stewart, volunteers measure rice, beans, dried vegetables and a supplemental vitamin mixture into bags each designed to deliver six meals' worth of food.
Then, Waller explained, an organization called Netmenders Ministry arrives in Park Rapids with a flatbed truck, loads up pallets of food and takes them to Harlingen, Texas. From there, churches and mission groups carry the food across the Mexican border to cities such as Reynosa.
Waller has personally participated in distribution events in Reynosa.
"I was down there twice," he said. "We were able to follow our food down to the southern part of Texas and then go across the border with the Netmenders organization and distribute our food, and cook it and serve it. It was fun to see the other side, and to know exactly where it's going and who's using it, and that it's being used properly is nice to know."
Sharing a shipment with some organizations, said Waller, sometimes means "you don't know exactly where it ends up or how it gets distributed. For us, it's been really good to work with this organization. And now with Eric, he'll have hands-on distribution, too."
Mission trips to Mexico have also given Waller's youth group an opportunity to see the need firsthand.
People in Reynosa, on average, are better off than in many parts of Mexico. For most people, that doesn't translate to a higher standard of living. As Waller pointed out, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer" in an area where drug lords and drug trafficking have taken everything over.
Another factor is the immigration crisis.
"They get to the border sometimes, and they don't have any means of survival because they've come from a southern part of Mexico or another Latin American country," he said. "They get that far, and they get stuck sometimes. So there are a lot of needy people there."
Waller said Hunger No More has supplied more than 3.3 million meals to Mexico in his time.
After 26 years in Park Rapids, he and his wife Beth are moving closer to the Twin Cities to be closer to her parents, their three grown-up children and their grandchildren.
Their decision to leave the area brought a need for a new director at Hunger No More. With Park Rapids native Bervig, Waller found a successor who has lived among some of the poorest people in the New World.
Waller and Bervig met at Faithbridge Church, and got to know each other better during some of the church's humanitarian mission trips.
In 2010, they both traveled to the Dominican Republic to serve Haitian people through an organization called Children of the Nations. It was their first of three trips together, and Bervig's first time witnessing the Haitians' devastating poverty. Later, Bervig traveled with another church group to Haiti.
"Those experiences opened the door to doing more long-term work there," said Bervig.
That work led him to start an organization called Intercession Haiti and culminated in almost two years living in Jérémie, a city of about 300,000 on the northwest coast of Haiti's southern peninsula. Along with his wife Jennifer and their family, he plunged deep enough in Haitian life to learn the Haitian Creole language.
"We were there running a boarding school," said Bervig. "We had 11 Haitian children who lived with us. Right now, we operate a school of 73 children, first through sixth grade. We give them a basic education and meals."
Merging the two ideas - feeding schoolchildren in Jérémie and sending meals to Reynosa - "really makes sense for us," he said.
The Bervig family was there in October 2016 when Hurricane Matthew devastated that part of Haiti.
"We spent the next eight months repairing and rebuilding houses for people, distributing food, being part of the distribution side," he said. "We saw a huge amount of pirating of food, of waste. So being able to take it directly from one place it and see it all the way to another is really important."
Hunger No More is equipped to just that, he noted.
Intercession Haiti serves an area that has no other school, and it already has a feeding program to supplement the students' diet. Moving forward, that food will come from Hunger No More.
"Most of those kids are getting one meal a day," said Bervig. "That's what we have to deal with."
In the area around Jérémie, he added, unemployment rates hover around 75 percent.
"They're just managing day to day to try to get enough money, bartering, buying and selling, to have meals," he said. "Most men who are working are doing construction. Most women who are working are either cooking for someone else or washing clothes or doing something very basic - housekeeping, cleaning - just to make ends meet. This is a great way to help them establish a more consistent diet, to give them food so that they can go out and do other things."
Waller voiced appreciation of the support Hunger No More has received from Park Rapids and surrounding communities.
"Many people have given on their own," he said. "Some churches and organizations have helped us out. We had one major contributor that gave us a matching grant for a number of years. It's always a challenge to stay ahead financially, but the Lord has blessed us in many ways over the years."
Waller recalled how, early on, the ministry's trailer full of supplies was stolen and destroyed. "We had to start all over again," he said. "The whole community was really behind us and helped out. Other organizations gave us supplies to help us get restarted. Since then, we've depended on the groups that do the packaging. Sometimes they're church groups. We've had Boy Scout groups, schools. In December, the Park Rapids hockey team packaged meals."
Hunger No More has had food packaging events recently at churches in Walker and New York Mills. Bervig said summer is their slow time, but he is already busy scheduling local events.
He said he is excited to work with the network of people Waller set up, and to continue serving the needs of people in Reynosa and Jérémie.
With 10 children, ranging from 3 months to 16 years old, Bervig joked that he won't have any trouble finding volunteer staff for Hunger No More.
To schedule a packaging event or to discuss a donation to Hunger No More, call Bervig at 929-9692 or email email@example.com.