On Friday, Justin Mondak discovered that assembling a picnic table using screwdrivers and other manual tools was a challenge.
An even bigger challenge, the 13-year-old learned that day, is not knowing where your next meal is coming from, which describes 1 in 5 U.S. children.
The picnic table and the information on childhood hunger were part of a nationwide project called "What Will You Bring to the Table?" The service learning project is part of generationOn, the youth division of the nonprofit Points of Light dedicated to volunteerism and community service.
The project was presented to 20 seventh-graders in South Allegheny Middle School by Holly McGraw-Turkovic of Pittsburgh Cares and Megan Bailey of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. The presentation kicked off Allegheny County's participation in the project.
A canned goods drive is being held at the school through April 26.
"We wanted to bring awareness of childhood hunger, and that it exists in our communities," Ms. McGraw-Turkovic said of the project.
Among the statistics the presenters shared was that nearly 17 million U.S. youngsters will experience hunger at any given time, and the average age of a homeless child in the county is 9.
Justin, of Port Vue, was among 20 students who listened to the presentations and watched a video.
Afterward, students put together and painted a picnic table to bring awareness to the issue or brainstormed ideas to combat the problem.
Teacher Stacey Ghetian chose the 20 participants.
"I thought they had leadership qualities and would be good advocates for fighting hunger," she said of the students, who are expected to promote the issue and subsequent activities schoolwide.
Ms. Ghetian said the students were so focused on the project they almost forgot about lunch.
"No one even asked when the pizza was coming as they were so into what they were doing,'' she said.
Lunch was provided by Pittsburgh Cares, a nonprofit that works to advance volunteerism and civic engagement in the region.
By day's end, the picnic table was decorated with two large spoons and a painted dinner plate containing the words "What Will You Bring to the Table, S.A.?" The "S.A." stands for South Allegheny.
The plate is set in the midst of colorfully drawn puzzle pieces signifying that all pieces of the community must come together to end hunger.
The benches are painted with the words "volunteer'' and "time, talent, treasure."
The table will remain outdoors by the cafeteria windows for prominent visibility.
Middle school principal Lisa Duval said the project was educational experience because it fostered team building, group learning, communications/collaborative skills, and the arts.
"Anytime you can tie a project like this into learning, it's more meaningful to the kids,'' she said.
Sara Pribanic, 12, of Port Vue painted a few puzzle pieces and drew a can of soup and piece of bread beside the plate.
She said she enjoyed being creative, and plans to contribute cans to the Turn the Table on Hunger canned goods drive.
Students and community members can drop off items in the school lobby during school hours through April 26.
Another strategy is reading a different hunger statistic every morning over the loud speaker.
Kaylee Ludwick, 13, of Port Vue, who helped build the table, said she will talk with friends about hunger and encourage donations to the food drive.
Ivan Matejcic, 13, of Port Vue said he learned through the project that more people are affected by hunger than he expected.
By conducting a food drive and talking to relatives about it, he said, the word will spread, resulting in community members becoming involved.
"It's the domino effect,'' he said.
Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.