Heidi Hiller burst into the room with enough energy to fuel a bar mitzvah, which is, of course, exactly what she does. A party planner by trade, Hiller was at Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland near Highlandtown with a group of party planners, photographers and other event professionals to conduct their own mitzvah project.
The idea came from a networking group of Maryland and Washington, D.C., bar and bat mitzvah party professionals who have been meeting since summer 2016. Hiller hosted more than 40 members of what was then a Facebook group at her Owings Mills office, and more meetings followed.
At a meeting last year, a member mentioned how inspired they were by young teens conducting mitzvah projects. Being planners, Hiller and Brynne Magaziner of Pop Color Events in Northern Virginia established two “brr mitzvah” days, one in Washington, D.C., and another in Baltimore to involve members of the group in their own mitzvah projects.
On Feb. 14, 10 b’nai mitzvot vendors including photographers, party planners and rental providers, met in the Meals on Wheels conference room to begin their morning of volunteering with the program. A group of photographers, the first to arrive, spoke spiritedly about their work, exchanging stories and recent experiences. Then Hiller strode into the room with the vibrance of the first day of spring greeting old friends, shaking hands with newcomers and laughing.
Volunteer Resources Manager Emily Trotter took over, distributing hair nets and crimson red aprons to prepare volunteers for their time at Meals on Wheels. Armed with a Power Point presentation, Trotter explained the roots of Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, which began on Oct. 3, 196
0, when 10 kosher meals were served to homebound residents. She also emphasized the growing need for the program. While Meals on Wheels has no age or income restrictions, the majority of recipients are elderly and the number of senior citizens in Maryland is only projected to increase.
Volunteers play an integral role in Meals on Wheels’ production and distribution of more than 5,000 meals daily. While the kitchen is run by staff, the work of volunteers, who complete from 30 to 100 percent of specific tasks such as placing the daily protein in pans or putting fruit in cups, is essential. Volunteers also help with delivery routes and other programs from delivering pet food for the Kibble Connection program to calling and visiting homebound residents through the Phone Pals and Friendly Connections programs.
The mitzvah vendors were split into groups and assigned tasks. Two joined Hiller at a short conveyor belt where black plastic trays were lined up. One person scooped egg salad, another fruit, a third a carrot-raisin salad into parts of the tray. As the conveyor belt turned on, lurching forward every few seconds, they hurried to catch up, scooping and placing rapidly. Another group divvied up canned fruit into individual portions, stacking the finished cups in massive tiers of plastic and fruit while a third group prepared bags of bread. This assembly line of volunteers was making enough food to feed 1,500 people for a day.
Hiller says that participating in this mitzvah project and other volunteering programs like it has given her a new lens through which to view her business. “The whole point is,” Hiller said, “what can the event industry do as a whole to better service the needy in the community?” She’s noticed all the food waste that occurs when putting on b’nai mitzvot and has been working with caterers who package up leftover food for donation. Additionally, she says, there are others in the event industry that are working to prevent waste, such as florists who donate flowers after weddings to hospitals. Hiller and Magaziner’s plans for the future of their budding organization include organizing more events and volunteer days with Meals on Wheels and other nonprofits, and continuing to envision new ways to impact the event industry for the better.