It was never a shock to anyone when they found me hanging out at Penn State Hillel in between classes or during lunch. As a student these past four years, I went there regularly to chat with my friends and the Hillel staff.
Often, those innocuous hangouts led to deep conversations about my hopes and dreams, my fears and insecurities, my passions and my goals. Those conversations were enriching, inspiring and even empowering.
One such conversation sticks out in my memory, and it continues to have an impact on me today. It began over a Jewish proverb, ‘iron sharpens iron,’ shared with me by Hillel’s assistant director. He explained that in every conversation and interaction that I have, I am sharpened by someone else.
Whether that encounter is positive or negative, there is opportunity to find meaning, to learn something and to grow.
I began asking myself how I could grow in a way that incorporated two of my greatest passions – tikkun olam (repairing the world) and community engagement.
While on a summer break at home in Pittsburgh last year, I discovered a new project taking root in the community. In residential yards, public parks, and community centers were birdhouses full of books donated by community members for community members. These birdhouses were called Little Libraries, and the project built community, sparked creativity and inspired readers. I thought that it would be a worthwhile idea to add new pantries stocked not with books, but with food.
Through research, I discovered that according to do some. One in six Americans are hungry, meaning, for a sustained period, they are unable to eat sufficient food to meet basic nutritional needs. While I never gave purchasing food with my meal points a second thought in college, I learned that, according to recent surveys, one in four students are not only facing similar academic pressures, but also worrying about their next meal.
After learning that 14% of Centre County, PA, in which Penn State is located, experiences food insecurity, my sadness became a call to action.
I spearheaded the creation of two Little Pantries in Centre County, weatherproof pantries stocked with non-perishable food for neighbors in need. Its motto: “Take what you need. Donate what you can.”
After many hours of meetings with students, Penn State faculty and community members, late night construction workshops, early morning runs to the local hardware store, local food drives and sustainability conversations, two pantries filled with food and seasonal products (e.g. sunscreen for summer and school supplies for fall) were built and put to use.
Located at two churches in areas of high need, the pantries are accessible 24/7 to both benefactors and recipients. Both Little Pantries include a posted, visible honor code, suggested donation list and take-home hunger awareness and resource cards specific to Centre County.
Today, Little Pantries not only provides food for those in need, but also unites both students and State College residents in the food donations and pantry maintenance. Local student and community organizations have committed to providing quality control checks, donations and possible future expansion.
To me, this project truly embodies the meaning behind ‘iron sharpens iron’. As a community, we are continuing to grow and inspire each other through dialogue and hands-on service projects. Through conversation and hard work, we continue to sharpen and inspire each other and our community. My hope is that this project will not only ignite conversation around hunger education and advocacy, but it will empower people to create change right in their own communities.
As I continue my Jewish journey with Repair the World, I look forward to discovering more opportunities for growth. What began with a small text from the Torah, has now become my go-to source of inspiration and motivation.
Because of Hillel, I gained the confidence and support I needed to create change. Hillel is a hub for students to sharpen leadership skills, cultivate new ideas, enrich their Jewish identities and turn their passions into actions, just like I did with Little Pantries.