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MTC missionaries spend Thanksgiving packing meals for the hungry

PROVO — Sister Sydney Harris spent her first Thanksgiving away from her family Thursday.

"I am missing the homemade pie," she laughed, thinking of back home in Rigby, Idaho.

But Sister Harris, who will leave the Missionary Training Center to serve a mission in Riverside, California for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was in high spirits, her hair tucked beneath a red hair net as she scooped lentils into a plastic bag.

"I've never felt the spirit so strong," she said.

Around her, about 1,500 other missionaries bustled about at the MTC, spending their Thanksgiving afternoon preparing more than 350,000 meal packs for Utah children in need.

The missionaries stood shoulder-to-shoulder at dozens of long tables in the training center's cafeteria, some singing upbeat gospel music as they hauled bags of rice, poured food into bags and stacked boxes.

Once prepared, the meals will require only water and heat to be eaten. Each boxed meal contained bags of rice, lentils, dried vegetables and salt.

All of the meals were to be distributed to low-income families with children through various food banks throughout the state.

It's the fourth service project of its kind — what's become the MTC's Thanksgiving tradition — through a partnership with the Florida-based nonprofit Feeding Children Everywhere.

David Green, CEO of Feeding Children Everywhere, said the meals packaged Thursday brought the total number of meals prepared by missionaries to more than 1 million.

Green called it one of the church's largest humanitarian efforts that's not related to emergency disaster response.

"I feel like there's no better way of showing selflessness," said Elder Muaau Suaalii, who was preparing to serve a mission in Apia, Samoa.

Dean R. Burgess, president of the Missionary Training Center, said the service project is meant to encourage missionaries to "follow the Savior's example by serving others."

"There are a lot of thoughts about home, because Thanksgiving is really about family," President Burgess said. "But we help them think about others, to not be so homesick or concerned about what's happening at home. It really helps them stay focused on their mission's purpose."

Elder Jared Pena, of American Fork, who was preparing to go on a Spanish-speaking mission in Neuquen, Argentina, said it was one of his best Thanksgiving Days, despite being away from his family.

"I think my parents would want me to go out and do the same thing on Thanksgiving," he said.

Elder Suaalii said the work was making him eager to get into the mission field.

"It means a lot, to know we're making so many meals for families in need. I think it's really special," he said. "This is what I want. I want to be of service to others."

Sister Harris said she "gets emotional" every time she thinks about how many people the meals will be helping.

"This is what missionary work is all about — serving others and bringing them closer to Christ," she said. "I love being a missionary, and I can't wait to do more."