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Local United Effort to Combat Hunger uses performance for public service

Published: December 27, 2014 | Last Modified: December 28, 2014 06:58AM
By ANNA MARIA LEMOINE Sun Staff Writer    
LUNCH Holiday Show 2014

WESTERLY — For four years, 17-year-old Betsey Matczak has played a role in helping feed the hungry.  Sometimes, that means portraying an Italian woman in a stage play or an ice-road trucker in a musical. Regardless, the Westerly High School senior rarely gets through a performance without tears.

“It’s hard to think of kids 2 or 3 years old not having a meal,” Betsey said. “I baby-sit, and I can’t imagine those kids going without food. It’s an upsetting thought.” Betsey and a small group of teens from Westerly have committed themselves and their voices to the Connecticut-based Local United Network to Combat Hunger, or LUNCH, a program that through music and theater raises money and brings awareness to the issues of hunger and poverty in the local area.

The group — made up entirely of volunteers — raises money through shows and sales of CDs and T-shirts. Money goes to local social-service agencies like the WARM Shelter and Johnnycake Center in Westerly and the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center and Stonington High School Student Assistance.

“Kids today are so heavily scheduled with activities, and it takes a special kind of commitment to stay with our program through those busy middle and high school years,” said Bill Pere, a nationally-known singer-songwriter who founded LUNCH in 1989. Pere, a Grammy-winner, is one of Connecticut’s Official State Troubadours, the 2003 national Indie Artist of the Year and a two-time Connecticut Songwriter of the Year. “I consider it a privilege to have worked with so many talented young people who are willing to give so much time and energy to make a difference in the lives of others.”

Twin sisters Renee and Sarah Cordio, juniors at WHS, joined LUNCH seven years ago. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people who don’t have anything, especially when I can use my gifts of singing and acting,” Renee, 16, said. “You never meet the people you’re raising money for, but you know they’re out there. There are a lot out there.”

Across Rhode Island, 101,500 households are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the former food-stamp program). In Stonington, an average of 1,446 people per month need assistance through Connecticut’s Department of Social Services. In 2011-12, 23.5 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced school meals.

“It makes me happy to raise money for people who don’t have food,” Grace Matczak, Betsey’s younger sister, said. Grace, 15, is in her second year with LUNCH. “That’s why we do this — the main cause is to end hunger.”
The students estimate they put in about a dozen hours of practice a week leading up to the shows, which can draw hundreds of people.

Pere said LUNCH mostly perform the songs of Harry Chapin or original songs of Pere, his wife, Kay, and other artists from the Connecticut Songwriters Association. LUNCH has raised millions of dollars since it was founded.
“In college, I always admired the songwriting of Harry Chapin, and was impressed with his commitment to using his music to address the issue of hunger in America,” Pere said. “He founded World Hunger Year and always said, ‘Do one show for yourself, and one for the other guy.’”

Besides giving teens a platform to perform, LUNCH also gives them the opportunity, at a young age, to give back to their communities. “LUNCH is open to all who have a song in their hearts and a desire to make a difference in the lives of others,” Pere said.

Added Alyssa Verno, a junior at WHS: “It’s a lot of fun. We’ve done flash mobs ... every performance we’re like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’”

 

Originally Published December 27 2014, The Westerly Sun

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