Students at a Long Island school have sent more than a million meals to Haiti -- an ongoing volunteer effort to help the poorest of the poor, which defines Christmas spirit.
As the holiday nears, Lutheran High School in Brookville is gearing up for the fifth year of a food-assistance program serving children on the impoverished island.
The students raise about $80,000 a year for the effort, which involves sending loads of packaged meals to a school in a Haitian slum. Some meals will also go to food banks and pantries on Long Island.
Devoting themselves to that project and other service activities around Christmas "just makes it that much more special, because Jesus is coming," said Adriana Vollono, 17, of Bethpage, one of the program's student leaders.
Serving the less fortunate is "kind of in our DNA," said Kristen Klose, 17, of Seaford, another leader. "We're kind of a school based on service."
The volunteer effort is rooted in tragedy.
In 2010, Andrew Grene, 44, a Hicksville resident who was part of the United Nations' peacekeeping effort in Haiti, was killed in a devastating earthquake. He was at UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince when the building collapsed.
His wife, Jennifer, is an English teacher at Lutheran High. After her husband's death, the school community and others flooded her with emotional and financial support. She was grateful for the generosity -- and a bit embarrassed.
"There was such an outpouring of funds that it was overwhelming . . . and I felt like the people of Haiti had so much more need than I had," said Grene, who heads the school's English department.
At her urging, Lutheran redirected the money people were giving her and took on a student-led project focused on aiding Haiti.
Lutheran was already working with a Minnesota-based nonprofit, Mano Amiga ("Friendly Hand"), to send students to help build homes and other projects in Mexico and Tanzania. The group also runs a food-assistance program that provides the ingredients for meals, including rice, soy protein and freeze-dried mixed vegetables.
Lutheran signed up for that, too.
Mano Amiga ships the food to Lutheran, where during a three-day period the gym is turned into a "packing factory" where students, teachers and other volunteers, including local Girl and Boy scouts, put the food into individual packages.
About 1,000 people participate, including members of Trinity Lutheran Church, which has helped spearhead the project, said Dennis Scannell, the school's principal.
Much of the food goes to a high school in Haiti founded to honor Andrew Grene and built through a foundation started by his twin brother, Gregory Grene, and others.
The 363-student Andrew Grene High School is located near the slum of Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince. It's one of the poorest areas in the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere. About 80 percent of the population in Haiti lives below the poverty line, with many not getting enough to eat, statistics show.
Jennifer Grene said the meal Lutheran provides to students at the school is often the only one they have each day.
Lutheran recently obtained a large steel container in which to ship the food and store and protect it at the school. Lutheran pays Mano Amiga for the food through fundraisers run by the students. One, "Super Bowl Monday," involves students paying $5 for a lunch in which they get a bowl of soup and a bottle of water.
Haiti is not the only place the Lutheran food project helps. They have expanded it to send supplies to Nicaragua, as well as food banks on Long Island such as Island Harvest.
Andrew Grene, a special assistant to the head of the UN mission in Haiti, had worked on the island for about four years, returning to Long Island whenever he could to see his wife and their three children.
Before the quake, he had been hoping to return permanently because the situation in Haiti seemed to be improving.
The five-year anniversary of his death is Jan. 12, and Jennifer Grene plans to travel to Haiti for events at the school and the new UN headquarters.
Gregory Grene said the school graduated its first group of college-bound students last spring, and that the Andrew Grene Foundation is sponsoring three of the students with scholarships to attend Quisqueya University, one of the top private universities in Haiti.
Jennifer Grene said she's deeply moved by the Lutheran students' volunteer work in her husband's honor.
"It's overwhelming, but I have to say it's not surprising," she said. "I've never met a community that is so focused on helping others."