By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
At 16 years old, Allison Ockenfels is a veteran philanthropist for Mary’s Meals. For the past four years, she has raised more than $43,000 to build school kitchens and provide food to impoverished students in Africa.
“She’s very inspiring to me, personally, and the organization,” said Patricia Decker, coordinator of New Jersey-based Mary’s Meals USA. From the beginning, she’s been “impressive and motivating.”
One month ago the homeschooled teenager from St. Joseph Parish in Wellman had an opportunity to see the fruits of her labor up close, visiting two of the three kitchens she has funded in Malawi through donations.
“The kids got so excited,” she recalled. “They got in line to shake my hand and they kept going to the back of the line to shake my hand again!”
The opportunity for Allison to visit the Malawi schools arose this year after she became acquainted with a woman in nearby Indianola — Ellen Miller — whose son works at the Malawi office of Mary’s Meals. With Miller’s help, Allison and her parents, Pam and Dave, were able to arrange a trip to Malawi from Oct. 27 through Nov. 5.
It took about a day and a half for Allison and her parents to get to Africa by plane and, once there, Allison was encouraged to see the impact the donations had made. Because of high unemployment in Malawi, Mary’s Meals are “the only meal of the day” for many students, Allison said.
Children receive this lunch only by attending school. Enrollment has improved at both schools since the kitchens were built, Allison said. At one school, enrollment grew from 630 students to 950. At the other school, enrollment began at 2,500 students and is now over 4,000. “Families will send their kids so they know they will eat, but also to get an education.”
She added that an education can help the children avoid unemployment once they become adults. “In Malawi it is hard to get a job without an education.”
During her visits to the schools, she helped local women in the kitchen stir the porridge in caldrons. Afterward, students posed for pictures with their colorful plastic mugs containing protein-rich porridge.
Decker said Allison has a humble attitude about the kind of impact she has made, solely motivated by the compassion she has for child hunger. She recalled a 12-year-old Allison coming up to her booth at Christ our Life Conference in Des Moines in 2010, distraught by the idea of child hunger and believing it would take “a long time” to build a kitchen and make any kind of difference. Within a year, she had raised $11,000 — enough for her first kitchen. “It was the first installment of the amazement of Allison. People just responded,” Decker said.
While her fundraising abilities at a young age may seem impressive, Allison gives the credit to local parishioners, businesses and others who have made donations. “I just ask people for money. People have been very generous and it’s been pretty amazing!”
Mary’s Meals says 93 percent of donations it receives go to charity. The ministry reports it can feed a child in Malawi for a year for about $10, thanks to community volunteers and buying food locally.
For more information, contact Allison at (319) 646-6583 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her blog at www.marysmeals iowa.blogspot.com