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Volunteers assemble 1,000 food-filled wagons for central Ohio needy


The pounding of hammers and the smell of rubber tires filled the air at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank as hundreds of volunteers worked Saturday to assemble wagons for needy families.


"I like putting stuff together, and it makes me feel good to help others," said Shannon Panda, 28, of Westerville.


"The first one was hard, but it gets easier."


Mellisa Stevenson, 36, of Columbus, and her 11-year-old son, Jakai Hayes, were eager to give back to the community, especially during the holidays.


"My family will have a blessed Christmas," Jakai said. "We're helping so others know what it's like to have a good Christmas."


After more than 600 volunteers worked in three shifts over about eight hours, the last of the 1,000 wagons was finished, filled with fixings for Christmas dinner and loaded into trucks for a host of community groups to deliver later this month.


Wagons Ho Ho Ho, in its ninth year, is organized by Columbus-based RMD Advertising. It started with 25 wagons when the firm decided to use the money it spent on client gifts for charity instead, and it has grown every year since. Volunteer slots are filled quickly by families, friends, co-workers and civic groups eager to return year after year.


"These wagons represent hope for a child if a family is struggling for food or medicine or housing or whatever it may be," said Donn Ditzhazy, a managing partner at RMD. "Giving them this old-fashioned wagon that they will have for years lets them know someone cares."


Volunteer Emily Puterbaugh, 32, of Groveport, knows how much the wagons will mean to families. When she pulled into Mid-Ohio's parking lot Saturday and saw dozens of people lined up at the pantry for food, memories of her own hardships came flooding back. "I've been on the other side," said the mother of three and veteran of the Air Force.


In 2009, after leaving the Air Force and waiting to start nursing school, Puterbaugh had no income and needed help feeding her young children, she said.

"A wagon full of food? It would have been big."


Puterbaugh, volunteering for the first time with dozens of other nurses from Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, plans to come back next year. "I'll bring power tools and a few preteens," she quipped.


"One in four children in our community doesn't know where his or her next meal is coming from," said Jill Jess, spokeswoman for Mid-Ohio, which distributes food for more than 149,000 meals a day in a 20-county area.


"Events like Wagons Ho Ho Ho help kiddos in our community have happy holidays and help relieve a bit of the stress for parents worried about choosing between food and presents — or other needs, such as medication or rent."


For volunteers such as Bill and Jackie Alarie of Columbus, the experience is a gift to themselves.


"When you give back, it makes you appreciate what you have and lets people know somebody cares about them," said Jackie Alarie, 66. "It feels good."


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