Volunteer Vacations: Gleanings for the Poor and Hungry
By Kathy Chin Leong

Some families fly to Maui for snorkeling. Others go sightseeing in China. The Pekary kids go to Fresno to wash buckets. In fact, the unglamorous two-day trip is so meaningful that for the past five years, the East Palo Alto family has made it an annual event.

Volunteering at Gleanings for the Hungry in Sultana, Calif., near Fresno, has been such a hit at the Pekary household of five children that they hate to say goodbye when its time to go, says mom April Pekary. "One time our house got broken into while we were gone, and the kids were more upset over the fact that we had to leave Gleanings early."

Gleanings for the Hungry is a Christian organization launched in1982. This 21-acre packing and processing plant draws volunteer workers from around the country utilizing skills not just in farm labor, but in everything from computer setup to sewing. Relying on donated fruits, beans, soup products and processing materials, last year Gleanings shipped 3.8 million pounds of food throughout the world.


April first got the idea to sign up her family when visited the Gleanings table at a homeschooling convention. At the show, the Gleanings representative was handing out dried peaches, emphasizing that the organization encourages volunteers to help wash buckets, package dried soups, sort and dry nectarines and peaches at its packing plant. The food packets are distributed to mission and church organizations to feed the hungry internationally.

Challenged by the thought that her family could make a tangible difference filling the stomaches of the impoverished, April and her husband Shannon knew this activity would make a positive impact.


A typical Gleanings day at the processing plant begins with a hearty breakfast at 7 a.m. and a time of worship at 8 a.m. By 9 a.m., everyone (toddlers, kids, parents, grandparents) get to work. Depending on the time of year, Gleanings doles out various responsibilities. In the spring, volunteers wash buckets usually donated by bakeries. These buckets will later be used to hold the dried fruit. At other times workers come to sort peaches. Local farmers donate the bruised crops not suitable for selling at the markets.

Lynn O'Dwyer, the founder's wife, notes that summer drying season is the time for fruit processing and extra bunks are hauled out to accommodate as many as 95 people who want to spend the night. Age limit in the summer is at least 13, due to the extraordinary amount of machinery that is in operation at that time.

When volunteers go during the winter, they can package dried soup mixes or repackage foods into small plastic bags. In many countries, the people do not even own a bowl to eat out of. They will reuse the bag to contain their food.

"Wearing working clothes that will get grubby is a must," explains April. Volunteers perform their duties until the mid-morning break, then labor again until lunch. After a bountiful meal, it's quitting time at 5 p.m. Those who tire can sit out until they are ready to join in again. Dinner is served at 5:30 p.m. promptly.

How young can kids be to help? O'Dwyer says there is no age minimum to volunteer, except for the summer when the minimum age is 13. Families come with babies, teenagers, and grandparents. "All skills are utilized," she says. People who sew and quilt can go to the sewing room to make quilts that are shipped with the food. Those with handyman skills can repair, make, and install equipment. Computer whizzes can help set up the administrative systems. "We tailor the work around the skill set of the volunteers," she explains. "One time we had a group come to tend our garden. And that was very helpful."

At the end of the day and after dinner, the families can go swimming in the pool on the premises. While volunteers work extremely hard, they are treated exceptionally well. They are housed and fed meals and snacks. Those who want to can come for a few hours or stay a week, sleeping in the dorm rooms. There is no charge for food and lodging, but workers can give a donation.


According to April, the hard work is actually fun for everyone. "You work side by side, spend time together, and it's great." One year the Pekarys, plus two other families, who came with them, washed 2,000 buckets in two days, she adds.

Lessons for the children are vast, she stresses. "Kids can see God's heart for the poor and realize that they can make a difference in this world. It is a great opportunity to train a child to work hard. So many times kids waste their time and energy on things that are not important."

But how can parents get buy-in from their kids? Going in with a positive attitude is important, she says. Gleanings has produced a video families can use to prepare themselves. Going to Gleanings as a group with friends is also another way to make the experience fun and exciting.

"Kids do need to be cooperative and obedient," she says. "And it really helps to bring Dad because he can share in the experience. And going with friends is fun. That's just icing on the cake."



Gleanings for the Hungry
43029 Road 104
Sultana, CA

For more information, contact the organization at:


  • Explain to your kids what they will be doing and the purpose of going.
  • Bring grubby clothes and shoes.
  • Expect to work hard.
  • Keep an eye on your younger ones so they do not stray.
  • Watch the Gleanings video ahead of time.

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