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The mamas help girls tuck each strand of hair under hair nets, tie filmy plastic apron strings around small middles.
We play a name game to corral the energy while we wait, each girl designing a signature dance move.
One of the mamas explains that we are there to use our Girl Power, this strength to help others.
This is real strength, after all.
And when the volunteer coordinator comes to talk about what we’ll be doing this rainy October night, a few of the girls explain that we are there to serve and help — packing bags of potatoes at the Oregon Food Bank — to give to people who are hungry.
In our state, 92,000 children will eat from the contents of emergency food boxes this month alone — and these potatoes will provide the beginnings of a good meal for some of them.
The bins are deep and the potatoes large — some of them a good four inches across. A surprising number are formed like hearts, and the mama I’m packing brown plastic bags with holds love shapes up for her daughter whenever she finds one. Her daughter does the same, and we smile.
Several second-grade girls act as runners, lugging ten-pound bags from the bins to pallets. Others fill bags and cinch them shut with twisty ties.
The seven- and eight-year-olds seem undaunted by the size of the task, by the bags they fill, lift and run one after another. The girls are breathing hard, and they look so happy.
From time to time, I glance across the room at J who works alongside her friend B, moving from bin to bin. J seems to want space separate from me on this night to do her work, only stopping in briefly so I can remove the fleece under her apron without ripping it.
Her face says pride — the really good kind — and strength and joy. These little hands, callused by monkey bars and wrapped in plastic gloves too big for her, move quickly with the kind of power that lifts one huge potato after another to feed a child we don’t see, but can imagine.
A child just like these.