More than 1,250 volunteers participated in 75 projects to help beautify, build and improve their community Friday as United Way Regional Volunteer Center and Volunteer Lake County hosted their 14th annual United Way Day of Caring event.

Projects in Porter County included painting, landscaping, building, cleaning, packing meals and a blood drive. At Kirchhoff Park and Jessee-Pifer Park in Valparaiso volunteers from Vogelsang Asset Management and Family & Youth Services Bureau were doing some groundskeeping.

Dorthea Robbins, program director for risk management at the bureau, said Day of Caring for them is a physical way to make a presence and show that their mission is giving back to the community.

Karen Vogelsang said her staff likes to do volunteer work several times a year.

“This community is a joy to live in and it’s our responsibility to all pitch in and keep making it better,” she said.

Arrayed in white caps to cover their hair, nearly 400 representatives of companies, nonprofit agencies and schools came together Friday in Merrillville at the Lake Area United Way’s Day of Caring to help those in Lake County who experience hunger on a daily basis.

Pack-a-Palooza at the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza’s Celebrity Ballroom saw those volunteers pack 115,000 meals in just three hours to give to Greater Hammond Community Services to distribute to food pantries throughout Lake County.

“We have 43 teams,” said Lisa Daughtery, president/CEO of the Lake Area United Way, as the volunteers lined both sides of long tables, each assigned a specific job in the assembly line process.

Each packaged and heat-sealed meal of fortified pasta with Italian tomato basil sauce makes five servings when prepared according to directions on the package, Daughtery said.

“It’s nutritious and a little bit different than people get at the food pantry,” she said.

Now in its fourth year, Pack-a-Palooza partnered for the second year with Iowa-based nonprofit Outreach Inc., which provided the food and the equipment for packaging the meals. Donations of $1,000 to assemble each team and pay for the food came from such companies as NIPSCO, First Financial Bank and Enbridge.

NIPSCO, for example, had nearly 100 volunteers sign up to package the meals, while Enbridge sponsored three teams and First Financial Bank donated $1,000 for its 14 team members to participate.

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Thirteen students from St. Michael’s School in Schererville experienced their first Pack-a-Palooza as a way to give back to the community.

“I was looking to do service hours for school,” said Nick Jakalski, 13, an 8th-grader this year.

Crown Point resident Anthony Fulzi, an intern with NiSource, waited at the end of one NIPSCO table to pack the meals into a cardboard box and bring more food supplies to his team as needed.

“Sometimes I think I take things for granted,” he said. “It’s humbling because you know people are out there who can’t afford a meal. It’s good to give back.”

Over at the Porter County Museum volunteers from Porter Regional Health System were doing repair work and painting in the Broncho John exhibit room.

“It’s just another way for Porter associates to give back to the community,” said Karin Birchel, community program coordinator for Porter Health Care System.

Next door at the Memorial Opera House were volunteers from Centier Bank spending the day beautifying the historic building by shampooing carpets, cleaning woodwork and painting.

At Washington Township Elementary School volunteers from the U.S. Navy recruiting office in Valparaiso were painting the concession stand. Spreading mulch nearby on the school playground were a family of volunteers—Mark and Laura Suga, and their sons Kai, 3 and Aiden, 6, who is starting first grade there this fall.

“I figure spreading mulch is something we can all help with,” Laura Suga said. “And it shows the kids that it takes a community to keep things nice.”

Other sites for one of the largest volunteer events in the Region included Lakeshore Paws in Valpariaso, where clean-up and pet playtime took place. Also in Valparaiso, a deck was painted at The Caring Place. Volunteers also trimmed trails at Coffee Creek Watershed Conservatory in Chesterton and helped prepare for a new school year at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Porter County—Portage Unit.

“Day of Caring really magnifies the heart of the community,” said Kim Olesker, president & CEO of United Way of Porter County. “We really appreciate the residents pulling together to support the many deserving nonprofit organizations in the program.”

The event is sponsored by The Times Media Company, Strack & Van Til, Ultra Foods, Town and Country Market, NIPSCO, Family Express, Blue Chip Casino’s King of the Road food truck, Blythe’s Athletics, the McAfee Animal Hospital and many more.

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Lake County reporter

Rob covers urban affairs and other matters in Crown Point, St. John, Winfield and beyond. Previously he covered Valparaiso, Hammond, Gary and East Chicago. He's also written for various magazines and pens a culture blog for The Times.