COLUMBIA, SC (RNN) - This weekend, teens from Brian Silldorff's youth group will wrap their arms - and stomachs - around an issue that starts at their church steps and extends to the far corners of the globe.
They'll learn firsthand what it means to be hungry, fasting for 30 hours straight.
Part of World Vision's 30 Hour Famine, the youth group at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral - along with thousands of youth groups across the country - hope to raise awareness and money to end world hunger, one dollar at a time.
For Silldorff, the famine is a practical way for his group to connect not only with the hungry across the globe, but with the 10 homeless people who he estimates sleep on the Columbia, SC church's grounds every night.
"We think that it's important to realize we have a large homeless population in our city, [to know] what they go through every day," Silldorff said.
According to World Vision, a humanitarian organization, $1 will feed and care for hungry child for a day.
They estimate a child dies worldwide from hunger-related causes every 13 seconds. Not all die from starvation. Many die from diseases resulting from hunger, malnutrition and a compromised immune system.
Students set individual goals for how many children they will raise money to help and for how long. Youth groups can choose from a list which country their funds go to aid or can designate them to go to the country where the greatest need exists.
For the first time, the United States is on the list of countries groups can donate funds to.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show a little more than 85 percent of homes in America were considered "food secure" in the year 2011, the latest year with available numbers. But the remaining 15 percent were considered to have low food security, with 5.7 percent of those homes having very low food security, meaning there simply wasn't enough food for all the members of the household at certain times of the year.
"Our kids try to raise enough money for at least half a year each, ideally a year," Silldorff said.
As they raise money, the reality of how far a dollar can go begins to sink in.
"They go to the movies and spend $35 on tickets and popcorn and realize they could feed a child for 35 days with that money. It's good for them to put that into perspective," he said.
In 14 years participating in the famine at two different churches, Silldorff's youth groups have raised close to $1 million.
One year, a group raised $185,000 alone.
"We take a different approach than some. We don't focus on the money. We focus on raising awareness," he said. "When we stopped focusing on actual dollar amounts and pledges … the amount we raised went up exponentially."
"It changes the dynamic. It's not a kid asking someone for money. It's telling someone about trying to solve this horrific incident that we can solve. By changing our focus to raising awareness from raising dollars, it's something they find they're passionate about and they don't dread."
Students spend their 30 fasting hours at lock-ins and performing community service projects, oftentimes at food pantries and soup kitchens, driving home the reality of what it means to be hungry.
"It humbles you because it's something a lot of us have control over. We know we can get a meal afterward, but it makes you realize there are people out there who absolutely don't have that choice," said Leah Swindon, director of the 30 Hour Famine and a youth leader at her church in Seattle.
"I worked at a rescue mission before and told the kids, 'This is probably the only meal these people are eating today.' It causes them to think differently and to appreciate what they have."
Swindon says all the money raised during the 30 Hour Famine goes directly to World Vision's food relief efforts around the globe.
Anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 students participate in one of two famines each year. Groups not participating this weekend can join the next 30 Hour Famine on April 26 to 27.
Though it's both a physical and mental a challenge, Swindon says students "want the challenge … They have this attitude of 'Bring it. I want to feel this, experience it.' Kids come to me every year and ask 'When are we doing the famine again?'"
"It's not something you can train for like a marathon. So it's still that same impact every year. It's just as hard every year."
Silldorff's group takes the famine experience a step farther than most. In addition to the fast, they'll spend Saturday night on the church's lawn, constructing shelter from cardboard boxes.
"Most people who are hungry also don't have a home," he said.
When the fast is over, they won't dive head-first into the ice cream.
They'll share a meal at a breakfast their church serves every Sunday to the local homeless population.
"It's not just about the food, it's about relationships. The kids no longer use the word 'bum' or 'homeless person,' all those [words with] negative connotations. Now they're saying 'Oh, that's John.' They put a face and a name with a homeless person," Silldorff said.
"The kids are no longer scared, they just talk to them and realize they stood in line with that person and were just as hungry as that person was with the famine."
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