Despite Maryland being one of the wealthiest states in the country, Maryland Hunger Solutions states many residents still struggle with having enough to eat. This is a challenge The Wills Group believes it can help solve while working in partnership with community-based partners like Farming 4 Hunger to provide healthy meals for children across Southern Maryland.

On May 17, about 50 employees from the Wills Group volunteered at Serenity Farm, working with F4H staff and program participants to plant and harvest fresh local produce that will be made available for families in need. The mission of F4H is to feed the hungry by growing fresh produce. It has distributed more than 6.5 million pounds of produce for residents across Southern Maryland since 2012.

“I want to open the eyes of companies and individuals that there are a lot of things going on in the area as well as seeing that there is a place of hope, awareness, understanding, no pre-judging and it’s OK to be transparent and let your guard down,” said Bernie Fowler Jr. founder of Farming 4 Hunger. “I hope they have a better awareness of farming for hunger. I hope they think about their own journey, where they are heading and what it means to serve others.”

During the day, Wills Group employees volunteered alongside F4H program participants, working together to plant seeds and harvest seasonal produce. The Wills Group employees also participated in a team building exercise organized by F4H, with the day closing with F4H participants sharing their stories as part of the “Life Sharing” program.

“The men from the Department of Corrections shared their personal stories to The Wills Group,” Fowler said. “It allows them to express their thanks for having an opportunity to give back to the community and to be encouraged on their next steps in life. Many folks from The Wills Group stated that their testimonies really made an impact on their experience.”

“It’s a neat opportunity to get our employees together for a common purpose: to bring awareness to Farming4 Hunger and what they do, but also to help pick strawberries, plant food and make contributions to the Maryland Food Bank,” said Joe Wills, vice president of SMO Energy. “We also have several committees working on our signature programs, called ‘Safe and Healthy Homes’ and ‘Eliminating Childhood Hunger Committee.’”

The Wills Group, headquartered in La Plata, is the parent company of SMO Energy, Dash In Food Stores, Splash In ECO Car Wash and SMO Motor Fuels. Wills said several members of the company who made a trip to Serenity Farm in the fall of 2016 left them inspired and wanting to partner with the F4H for future opportunities.

“We had an event here last fall called ‘The Taste of The Farm,’ which introduces Southern Maryland businesses to what we do here at Farming 4 Hunger,” Fowler said. “The Wills Group had five representatives at the farm who learned about the farm, enjoyed it. Months later we received a check for approximately $27,570 from the Wills Group.”

Fowler said he recently brought the F4H team building program aspect for companies this year to help promote healthy food choices for communities in need.

“It’s great to give out canned goods and boxed goods when somebody is hungry but that creates health dilemmas, high sodiums and high sugars. But when we get back to the ground getting dirty, bringing out fresh fruits and vegetables that are good for the soul,” Fowler said.

Wills Group employee David Lipshaw, a La Plata resident, said he enjoyed the team building experience and interacting with his fellow employees throughout the day.

“We work with each other every day, but we don’t get to see each other in this light — having fun and interacting with them. We watched a video and it got me thinking about my family and how I can be a better person even at home. Hearing the stories of the F4H volunteers who are incarcerated shows the importance of family. You never know what will happen and you need to cherish what you have now,” Lipshaw said.

Employee Michelle Reeves, a Hollywood resident, agreed.

“Being at the farm is an inspirational experience and how it came about it was very inspirational. They are harvesting healthy food and I also love that they are giving people second chances and working with the inmates,” she said. “I believe that everybody is rehabilitatable. A lot of them may not have come from really great home environments or get the first chance. Now they can come out here and work, find value in their lives and themselves, then they can go back out and turn something bad in their life into a really great experience.”

Michele Wills, wife of Julian Blaylock “Lock” Wills, the CEO of The Wills Group, said the F4H program hits close to home for her especially.

“It’s a great program and it’s bigger than just food,” Michele said. “I used to work as an agent in parole/probation where our main focus was all about second chances, so this is close to my heart. F4H shows us that transformation is possible through this program because there is so much power in transformation.”

“We all do need additional opportunities and they do a lot of unique things in regards to harvesting food, spiritual growth, personal growth. Not just growing plants — they’re growing lives,” Joe Wills said.

Twitter: @TiffIndyNews

Twitter: TiffIndyNews