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Mary Catherine Strobel Volunteer Award Nominee: Mark & Karen Strakbein

As part of Volunteer Appreciation Month, we are thrilled to share our Mary Catherine Strobel Award Nominee for Direct Service. Direct Service recognizes individuals who have contributed significant volunteer time, energy, and/or resources to help an agency’s constituents.  

The Mary Catherine Strobel Volunteer Awards recognize Middle Tennessee volunteers who give their time and talents to improve the community. Now in its 31st year, the awards ceremony are Middle Tennessee’s largest annual celebration of volunteerism! Hosted by Hands On Nashville in partnership with the Strobel family, the Awards honor the spirit of service demonstrated by Mary Catherine Strobel. 

Mark and Karen Strakbein serve as volunteer leaders at Second Harvest Food Bank two mornings each week. They welcome, train, and motivate volunteers during food sorting shifts in the warehouse. Mark and Karen are married and both retired, which allows them time to give back to their community through volunteering. Shortly after moving from Colorado to Middle Tennessee, they began volunteering with Second Harvest in October 2014. They volunteered frequently with various organizations back in Colorado, and were excited to jump in to helping roles in their new local community. It didn’t take long for them to make the leap from weekly volunteers to volunteer leaders. They are passionate about empowering other volunteers and about sharing the mission of Second Harvest. In addition to their service as leaders in the warehouse, they are always eager to assist with food and funds drives and special events.

During the 700+ hours that they have served at Second Harvest, Mark and Karen have shared the joy of feeding others with thousands of other volunteers. Working in the Second Harvest warehouse is not exactly a glamorous task – but with the Strakbeins, it is always an enjoyable one. They show up each Tuesday and Thursday eager and ready to tackle the day and whatever it might bring. Each new volunteer group brings a new challenge – a group of thirty high school sophomores makes for a much different morning than a group of fifty corporate engineers. But Mark and Karen never miss a beat; reading their audience comes naturally to them and they effortlessly cater each task to the individual or group needs. Once they have ensured that each and every volunteer has been trained on their task, they crank up the music (Pandora’s “Pop Fitness” playlist is their favorite), and settle in for three hours of fast paced fun. Mark and Karen are quick on their feet and are aware of the dynamics of the room at all times. They are excellent at making each and every volunteer feel like they are working on the most important task in the room and consistently checking in to make sure any questions are answered. At the conclusion of each shift, Mark gathers the volunteers into a huddle to thank them for their donation of time and energy, to share more about the mission of Second Harvest, and to describe the impact that the volunteers have had during their time serving. Most days, a volunteer group working with Mark and Karen is able to sort and pack 10,000 – 15,000 pounds of food, the equivalent of 8,000-12,000 meals. As the volunteers leave the warehouse after learning the sizable and tangible impact they’ve made in their community, it is tough to find someone that isn’t smiling. Mark and Karen are daily ambassadors of Second Harvest’s mission and never miss a moment to encourage someone to donate an hour or a dollar to make a big difference. They are a constant reminder of the enormous impact that just two people can have on the lives of fellow volunteers and our hungry neighbors in Middle Tennessee.

Second Harvest receives hundreds of thousands of pounds of donated food each month that needs to be sorted and packed before it can be distributed to hungry children, families and seniors in Middle Tennessee. Volunteers are the ones that make it all possible. There’s nothing better than capable and committed volunteers that believe in the mission and are excited about encouraging other volunteers to serve. Volunteer leaders like the Strakbeins, make it possible for Second Harvest to ensure that food donations are processed and out the door in a timely manner. Their charismatic personalities keep the volunteers coming back time and time again, which creates a volunteer program that not only thrives, but continues to grow! It’s almost impossible to catch Mark without a grin on his face or cracking a joke with a volunteer. Karen exudes a kindness that volunteers appreciate, and brings a sense of calm to the busyness of the sort room. Due to their knowledge and years of experience sorting food donations, they are always keeping an eye out for ways to improve the process. Their suggestions and simple changes like moving a table or shifting volunteers to a different area of the room can make a big difference in efficiency and output. Just last week, Mark and Karen were able to solve a consistent bottleneck area in the room by switching around a few of the packing stations – the flow of the room has been greatly improved already!

One of the special events that Mark and Karen love to help out with is the Tennessee Titans Food Drive. At one home game each season, volunteers will gather at drop off stations scattered around the perimeter of the stadium and accept donations of non-perishable food and funds. It might just be Mark’s favorite day of the year!! He makes a point to chat with every person that walks by about the impact that $1 can make in someone else’s life. His shouts of “$1 equals 4 meals!” come from a place of deep commitment and trust in the mission and work of Second Harvest, and others can sense his passion. He and Karen have an authenticity and excitement about them that is contagious and inspires people to give. Whichever collection point that Mark and Karen are stationed at consistently raises the most money at this annual drive, usually “beating out” the other stations by hundreds if not thousands of dollars. It’s a significant margin, especially when you consider that most of that is made up of $1 and $5 donations. The Strakbeins simply have a knack for connecting with people, whether it is for ten seconds as they are walking to a football game, or for three hours while sorting food in a warehouse. We are humbled and blessed that they use their talents to help us feed hungry people.

As we thought about your question, “Why do you serve?” we continually came back to our true belief in the Second Harvest Mission: To feed hungry people and to help solve hunger issues in our community. Our work with the food bank allows us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to do what is right and help those that are less fortunate. As one high school volunteer told us after a food sorting shift a few years ago, “It’s like we are helping someone we don’t even know!” What a perspective! Who knows when we may need and receive help someday from someone we don’t know. At the end of the day, we just want to do our part to make our world a better place for everyone.  -Mark Strakbein, Nominee

Congratulations to Mark and Karen on this well-deserved nomination!


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