- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008

No force of nature, not even a tropical storm, could stop the Convoy of Hope, volunteers for the charitable group said Sunday.

Tropical Storm Hanna’s wind and heavy rain postponed the event Saturday outside RFK Stadium. But families in need, organizers and volunteers arrived in full Sunday - on a cool, late-summer morning.

“This is such a humbling and fulfilling experience,” said Jessica Johnson, a volunteer for the gathering of faith-based groups and businesses. “It’s just been an honor to be a part of it.”

The group’s roughly 900 volunteers gave away more than 80,000 pounds of free groceries and provided dental exams, medical care and haircuts to an estimated 10,000 people.

Organizers said they ran out of volunteer name tags 10 minutes after the stadium gates opened in the midmorning because so many people wanted to help.

“The response of the local community is just awe-inspiring,” Miss Johnson said.

Among the volunteers were career-service workers, dentists, doctors, food-service workers, photographers, hair stylists and students.

“We were thrilled to see this kind of turnout,” said Dan Clark, an event coordinator. “It just shows us that instead of this being about free groceries, it’s about a community coming together.”

Erica Wrenn, a speech therapist from Fairfax, volunteered at the health-services tent on behalf of the American Heart Association.

“One of the great things Convoy of Hope does is provide guests not only with services but with information,” said Miss Wrenn, who talked to residents about the symptoms of heart problems.

Convoy of Hope started as a community outreach organization in 1994 and has distributed roughly $130 million in aid to needy families across the United States and 44 other countries.

Guests began arriving at about 8 a.m. and quickly filled the 23.6-acre parking lot. Many waited for more than 2 1/2 hours to receive groceries.

“It’s been fantastic so far,” said Precious Clemons, who heard about the event through an e-mail from a friend. “I haven’t even gotten groceries yet, but I’m already loving it.”

Mary Brown, who came with her husband, Richardo, said the event was “like one big family reunion.”

“We’re all having a good time,” she said.

The event also included free T-shirts, bicycles and a 19-inch flat-screen TV.

Rhonda Carey said she was going to give the black-and-red Schwinn bike she won in a raffle to her two sons.

“This is awesome, I can’t believe my boys will get to ride this,” she said.

Convoy of Hope co-founder Dave Donaldson said the event’s success can be attributed to the “guest of honor principle.”

“We believe that every person is special in God’s eyes, so we strive to treat everyone as if they were the guest of honor,” he said.

The event’s primary organizer, Joel Schmidgall of the National Community Church in the District, said donations from the District-based volunteers, especially after the hardships brought by the storm Saturday, “absolutely blew us away.”

“Man may plan his course, but God determines his footsteps,” he said. “To have so many come out after everything that happened yesterday is a blessing. … We had one person say, ‘I’m having so much fun, how do I volunteer next year?’ That’s all we can ask for.”

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