VALDOSTA -- For the last 10 days or so, volunteers from the community and clients at the Lowndes Advocacy Resource Center (LARC) in Valdosta have been packing 2,000 boxes of meals a day for the Gulf Coast hurricane relief effort.

The packing effort will continue at least through Friday, and volunteers are urgently needed, said Dr. Harry Hamm, LARC director.

"Just come out any time to the back door and say you want to help," Hamm said, referring to the 1646 E. Park Ave. location. "You can work one hour or all day."

Be sure to wear comfortable clothes and shoes because there is little opportunity for sitting, he added.

Local students took advantage of canceled classes on Monday and Tuesday, due to soaring energy costs, to help. Other volunteers included a group of 20 airmen from Moody Air Force Base, the American Red Cross, churches and people performing court-ordered community service, Hamm said.

The project was organized by Jeffrey-Michael Kane with the Defense Supply Center, a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, who became aware of LARC's program through an employee of I.J. Co. That Knoxville, Tenn.-based company contracts with the federal government for food supplies, and it has a warehouse in Valdosta that dispenses government stockpiled food to the U.S. Navy and other military and emergency operations.

On Sept. 16, Kane first approached LARC, which is a private non-profit social service agency that gives jobs to people with development disabilities and mental health issues.

"He wanted 1,000 boxes a day," Hamm said. "We were real gullible and said 'yes.'"

The need doubled in two days as Hurricane Rita bore down on the Gulf Coast, in Hurricane Katrina's devastated wake. Plus, the "module" was changed from boxes of 24 meals to boxes of 12 meals, Kane said. Smaller boxes are easier for relief workers and victims to handle, plus it gives the American Red Cross greater flexibility in dispersing food, Kane said.

"It allows for quicker reaction," he said.

LARC clients, called "consumers," immediately began putting rubber bands around 12 packs of plastic utensils.

The staging area was set up. Empty boxes came in flat by the truckloads and were hauled into one room at the center, reserved for forming and taping boxes. Empty boxes then were put on a rolling table as volunteers and LARC clients filled them with soft drinks, juice boxes, pre-packaged and microwaveable individual servings of chicken and dumplings and other meat products, raisins, fruit cups, chocolate pudding, Oreo cookies, crackers and plastic utensils. The boxes then were sealed and loaded on pallets and then into big trucks.

That assembly line, which includes two evacuees from the Gulf Coast, is expected to end up packing 240,000 meals. It has been running 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily, a schedule Hamm expects to continue through the week.

The first two truckloads went to the American Red Cross in Montgomery, Ala., before heading south to Gulfport and Bay St. Louis, Miss. A truck left Valdosta Monday night for Beauregard Parish, La. The goal is to send out three truckloads every day for the rest of the week, Kane said.

LARC needs volunteers from the community because its consumers are tied up on another 10 contracts that LARC has with businesses such as cutting wooden stakes for homebuilders, cutting plumbing lines for a local manufacturer of Jacuzzis, cleaning shopping center parking lots, and others.

"All our other contracts are at full capacity, so we couldn't free up all our consumers for this project," Hamm said.

The LARC project is one of six such staging projects currently in place for hurricane relief, but is the only non-profit one, Kane said. The others had the federal government contracting with private companies to do the work, Kane said.

Among many tasks, volunteers have had to cut up 12-packs of sodas into two six packs. Sometimes the knives would puncture a can sending the sticky soda all over the volunteers and their work effort, Hamm said.

"I can't say enough about LARC and the volunteers here," said Kane. "It's been a real Herculean effort."

For information, call LARC at 229-244-8290.

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