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Michele Calderon
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Elder Jack Gerard at a press conference announcing regional Day to Serve.

What a day. An inspiring, monumental "Day to Serve," that is.

That was the sentiment of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, three governors, a mayor and thousands of volunteers Saturday, Sept. 29, when residents of Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and the District of Columbia came together to perform nearly 750 service projects. Together, they served more than 14,000 people and collected more than 600,000 pounds of food to feed the hungry.

Nearly 200 projects focused on hunger, 350 focused on improving the environment and 310 were "Adopt a Road" clean-up projects. Many parks, creeks, beaches and highways were cleaned and record amounts of debris were collected, according to Anne Golightly, director of public affairs for the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area of the LDS Church.

Project recipients were from every corner of this broad region of the country and included individuals, group homes, a boat dock, a food kitchen, a cemetery, a beach, a food bank and more. Projects ranged from neighborhood food drives to races, soccer games, a concert, grocery store food collection sites, a fair and a carnival.

From 'Helping Hands' to a 'Day to Serve'

This project started out as an LDS Helping Hands project idea from Elder Jack Gerard, an Area Seventy for the LDS Church from McLean, Va. He spearheaded a successful “Day to Serve” effort in the Commonwealth of Virginia last year and wondered whether neighboring states and the District of Columbia would like to participate this year.

Elder Gerard organized a group of public affairs specialists and brought in Elder Chris Lansing, an Area Seventy in the southern Virginia and West Virginia area. They focused on one goal: to bring together three governors and a mayor and encourage them to issue official proclamations declaring Sept. 29, as a regional Day to Serve, encouraging their combined residents of 16 million people to join members of the LDS Church and dedicate one day to serving their communities.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, West Virginia Gov. Ear Ray Tomblin, and Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent C. Gray eagerly accepted the challenge and assigned high-level staff members to join the LDS organizing committee to “feed the hungry, empower the soul and heal the planet.”

“The governors and the mayor were thrilled to be part of this project. They jumped on board quickly, took strong leadership roles, and this project just took off. We may have started the ball rolling, but we quickly became a small spoke in a large, fast moving wheel," Elder Gerard said. "To my knowledge, this is the first project of this magnitude that has brought together such a diverse group of people for something so worthwhile. And it’s no small thing that, in today’s kind of political climate, we brought together people of both parties and all different religions for one worthy goal: to serve others as Jesus Christ did.”

“There’s precious little agreement on too many policy issues in Washington and state capitals, but we can all agree that the fight against hunger is an important one," said Gov. McDonnell. "I thank the LDS Church for bringing together these regional partners to make a real difference on the issue of hunger.”

“Maryland Governor O’Malley’s personal interest in 'Day to Serve' set a high bar for all of the participants,” Elder Gerard said. “We all had to work extraordinarily hard to keep up with him. He mobilized all the faith groups in Maryland very quickly, reached out to the Redskins football team and really led the charge for us.”

O'Malley even posted a video on YouTube of him strumming his banjo and singing “This Land is Your Land” to encourage participation in local Day to Serve projects.

Focusing on hunger

The need for food in just the Fairfax County area of Virginia has shot up more than 200 percent in the last year because of challenging economic conditions, According to Cecilia Vergaretti, senior director of the Capital Area Food Bank.

Realizing that one in four Americans are considered “food insecure,” meaning they do not know where their next meal will come from, Elder Gerard told church leaders in the area decided to focus primarily on hunger.

To help coordinate the effort and inform participants, organizers created a website called daytoserve.org with an interactive map that had a pin for each community service project planned. That map populated slowly, and then exploded by the final day to include about 750 pins representing 750 service projects in this wide swath of the country. Projects ranged from food drives at college football games in West Virginia to 5K races in Baltimore, a community “hunger summit” that called together government and faith groups in Virginia to help end hunger, and multi-faith food drives in Washington, D.C.

Elder Gerard and Elder Lansing asked that all members of the LDS Church focus their efforts on the hungry. Each Mormon ward in the region also was asked to reach out to a local food pantry to learn how they could help meet the increasing needs for food in their communities. Members also were authorized to introduce the food pantry directors to the church’s humanitarian services, which include offering $1,000 worth of goods from the local bishop’s storehouses to local pantries in need.

The McLean Second Ward in the McLean Virginia Stake reached out to Food for Others, a food distribution organization in Fairfax, Va., and planned to escort a representative from that organization to the bishop’s storehouse in Upper Marlboro, Md., to pick up $1,000 worth of foods of their choice to meet the needs of some of their clients. This is just one of the many donations like this.

In Oakton Virginia Stake, 730 volunteers — including those of other faiths — collected more than 12,000 pounds of food through food drives, a 5K race and a Day to Serve Relay with runners taking different lengths of the 45-mile Washington and Old Dominion Trail. In Annapolis, 46,000 pounds of food were donated and collected by following the ward's home teaching pattern and organizing families to work together in specific areas of the community.

The Fredricksburg Virginia Stake reported having 1,300 volunteers who contributed a total of 5,000 hours of service and collected about 34,000 pounds of food. Seneca Maryland Stake’s Olney First Ward teamed up with Bait-ur-Rahman Mosque of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community to gather food for HELP. The Buena Vista Virginia Stake installed shelves in a food relief association and prepared and served dinner to Community Table. The Richmond Virginia Midlothian Stake collected 1,000 books for a book bank and 10,000 diapers for needy families with infants.

In addition to the local outreach by members of more than 300 congregations of the church, the Humanitarian Services department of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City sent six semi-trucks full of food to major regional food banks selected by the governors and the mayor. Each truckload of food was valued between $30,000 and $40,000.

Nancy Smith at the Maryland Food Bank, one of the recipients of a truckload of food, said, “We thank the LDS Church for their generous gift of food. Not only is it the kind of food we desperately need, this donation will help many families in our state who continue to struggle.”

Gov. Tomblin of West Virginia asked that all football games played in the state on Sept. 29 be dedicated to Day to Serve. Throughout the week prior, as part of homecoming activities, students and alumni at West Virginia University were donating food at the student union in the heart of campus. During the school's homecoming game Saturday between WVU and Baylor, they set up a tent for a food drive.

Overwhelming success

Golightly, of the D.C. area public affairs office, volunteered to tabulate the results of the “Day to Serve” projects and was overwhelmed with the amount of information she received. She thought she could summarize all the data over the weekend but received so many reports from so many successful service projects that she said it would take her several days to get the final estimates of how much good was done on this one day.

“I was between tears and smiles all day long as I received such inspiring reports from so many people,” she said.

“By any measure, this was an enormous, unprecedented success," Elder Lansing said, "We made so many new friends by simply doing what we do best: serving Jesus Christ and inviting others to join us. We’ve already been told by the governors' offices that they’re ready to do it again next year, so we won’t have a lot of down time before we start planning our Day to Serve for 2013.”

A “Day to Serve” exhibit is now being planned for the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors Center to highlight the interfaith efforts and the countless heartwarming stories behind the numbers, Gerard said.

Laurie Snow Turner is a writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She blogs at lauriesnowturner.com.