Malnutrition Rehabilitation Center: a place I didn’t know even existed in our world, but a place that I now find myself standing in…surrounded by the sounds of young babies and children crying in Uganda, Africa. The year is 2011, and this is where it would all begin.
I was visiting my wife in Jinja, Uganda, where she was serving refugee women that had been displaced by the LRA. Only a few weeks before my trip, one of the worst famines/droughts in 60 years hit the horn of Africa impacting Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Northern Uganda. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), in the first three months of the famine, over 29,000 children under the age of 5 died due to malnutrition, with an estimated 3.3 million other lives at stake. Knowing that the famine was impacting families just north of where we were, we decided to travel to Gulu for a few days. After arriving in Gulu, 70 miles from the Sudan border, we stayed in houses with families that we knew, and traveled by Land Cruisers and dirt bikes into villages.
It’s easy to ignore statistics, but I believe that it’s shameful to reject human suffering, especially when it’s right in front of you, and that’s why we immediately looked for a way to respond to this tragedy that was unfolding in East Africa. My brothers and I had been traveling for several years in a band called, Willet. We had a platform, but wanted to use it for those in need of a voice. So, on August 9, 2011, we reached out to Rise Against Hunger to confirm that they were able to get food containers into the famine-affected areas, and launched a goal to fund, package and ship 10,000 meals to East Africa. What we didn’t realize was that this would become an initiative that we would be involved with for over six years!
Amazingly, Willet fans across the country responded generously and in only four weeks, all 10,000 meals were funded and packaged! So, on September 5, 2011, we announced that we were going to continue our response by sending 100,000 meals! Through ongoing fundraising campaigns, tours, t-shirt sales, and lots of advocacy, we packaged the last 10,000 meals on June 21, 2012 and hit our goal of 100,000 meals!
It would have been really easy to stop there. We accomplished what we set out to do. We kept our promise to the families in East Africa, and by this time, thankfully, the East Africa Famine had subsided, but by this time, we had also traveled into other countries such as Haiti, Mozambique, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic and others, and knew that hunger and malnutrition was an ongoing struggle for families around the world, especially children. Therefore, on June 21, 2012 at our 100,000 Meal Celebration Event, we announced that we were going for….1 MILLION MEALS.
We always attempted not only to inspire people to give financially to help hungry children, but also to use their voices and fashion to advocate for them, and to physically show how they were impacting communities through the projects they were funding. So in 2013, we traveled to Nicaragua with Rise Against Hunger to document a place that had been receiving some of the meals we were funding! The ability to stand in a community next to a child eating a nutritious meal that we had just packaged one month ago in the U.S. was life-changing for me.
Five years later, with 100,000 miles on our tour vehicle, and thousands of hours of advocacy, we have finally come to the conclusion of our Million Meal commitment. On September 17, we are hosting our Million Meal Celebration Event at our hometown of Westminster, Maryland. This event is FREE, and includes an acoustic performance by the band, and a 70,000 meal packaging event as we package the final, 1 millionth meal TOGETHER. Also at this event, we will be announcing a brand new initiative that we have been working over a year on behind the scenes. Advanced registration is required — please visit www.willetonline.com for more information.
We are so thankful for the partnership with Rise Against Hunger, and look forward to impacting more lives together in the future!