CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Volunteers gather bags of food collected from nearby neighborhoods during the 2015 Greg Gannon Canned Food Drive.
CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Volunteers gather bags of food collected from nearby neighborhoods during the 2015 Greg Gannon Canned Food Drive.

Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to try to carry out at least one of the Corporal or Spiritual Works of Mercy every day. Those simple daily acts of love, he said can bring about “a true cultural revolution.”

The story of the Greg Gannon Canned Food Drive and of Greg Gannon himself, demonstrates that.

The food drive’s website at www.greggannoncfd.org tells how the drive started.

In the late 1980s, Gannon – a parishioner at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington – began a neighborhood food drive with a small group of family members and friends, going door-to-door to collect canned goods and boxed food items. His goal was to bring help and hope to the poor in his community, and the drive helped carry out the corporal work of mercy of feeding the hungry.

Through his vision, determination and faith, Gannon rallied more and more people to the annual effort. After he died of brain cancer in 2006 at the age of 55, family members, friends, fellow parishioners, neighbors and other community members continued the food drive, which was named in his honor.

In 2015, the 28th annual Greg Gannon Food Drive mobilized the assistance of more than 3,000 volunteers who collected 151,520 cans. The collected food went to 40 recipient organizations, including programs of Catholic Charities and area parishes, and local food banks, pantries and shelters.

This year, an army of volunteers, including people from nine participating area Catholic parishes and from several schools, will gather on Dec. 3 for the annual food drive.

“Families say, ‘This is how we start our holidays.’ We start the holiday season giving instead of shopping,” said Meredith Ficca, the volunteer coordinator for Blessed Sacrament Parish.

She was among an army of volunteers mobilized for the 2015 Greg Gannon Canned Food Drive. People of all ages, from children to senior citizens, gathered in the Geico parking lot in Chevy Chase, as people drove up with cars filled with bags of food collected from their neighborhoods, and other volunteers gathered those bags for delivery to area programs serving the hungry.

Ficca, whose four children joined the effort over the years, noted how many families keep coming back to help year after year.

“Once they do it, they’re involved ‘til the last kid is off to college,” she said. “It’s a tangible way for kids to see they can make a difference in their own community.”

Participating parishes and schools also make the drive fun, with Blessed Sacrament School throwing a pizza party for the class that collects the most cans.

One father who was joining his children in helping that day said, “I’m teaching them from the standpoint of helping them be better people.”

A mother volunteering with her children nearby added, “Getting the kids involved in service at a young age teaches them about giving back.”

At the drive last year, Rick Gannon spoke about his brother’s legacy, which he continues in his work as the drive’s executive director. “My brother was all about service. His reason for starting this was to give friends and his family an opportunity for service. They started it out of their house on Harrison Street, and knocked door to door,” he said.

Now, almost three decades later, the food drive has collected more than one million cans of food. The effort that Greg Gannon began with his wife Maureen and their four daughters Katie, Colleen, Megan and Margi eventually expanded to a broader family network of friends, parishioners and community members.

“It brings people together as much as helping the less fortunate. It’s a character building and family building event,” said Megan Gannon Fitch, one of Greg Gannon’s daughters. Her sister Colleen Gannon added, “It really is fun to see it spread.”

Before the collection day, family members team up to cover neighborhood territories, handing out bags at houses and later picking them up. Some volunteers gather at their parishes for prayer services before joining the collection day effort.

Looking out over the flurry of activity on the parking lot, Rick Gannon said, “It’s a field of dreams.”

The difference that Greg Gannon made in the community also included his founding the Higher Achievement Program while he was a teacher at Gonzaga College High School in Washington. That academic enrichment program for disadvantaged youth, which last year marked its 40th anniversary, has helped more than 10,000 of the city’s children over the years.

Noting that her dad was a graduate of Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, which like Gonzaga is sponsored by the Society of Jesus, Colleen Gannon said, “He really took that ‘man for others’ teaching of the Jesuits” to heart.

Greg Gannon later served for 14 years as the director of development for the Archdiocese of Washington, after serving for five years as director of the archdiocese’s Cardinal’s Appeal. In each program, he helped raise funds for programs serving the poor and those in need throughout the community, just as he had helped others in the canned food drive and Higher Achievement Program that he started.

“Our dad was a daily communicant. Even when he was sick, he trusted in God’s plan,” said Megan Gannon Fitch, adding that what she learned from him was, “You have to do what you can to help others.”

Reflecting on how his good work was continuing through the food drive, she added, “It’s so nice to see this legacy. To us, he was our Dad.”

Maureen “Mo” Gannon, Greg’s widow, reflected on the canned food drive’s beginning as a family activity.

“We just felt like the kids needed opportunities for service. It seemed like a fun thing to do,” she said. “Greg was a very happy person, but he was very determined. He was a hard man to say ‘no’ to.

“He called on people to live their faith, and this is their faith,” she said, as the food drive volunteers continued unloading the bags of food.

Last year, the Southern Maryland Food Bank participated in the program for the first time and received more than 20,000 cans of food. In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy devastated the New Jersey coastal area, food drive volunteers loaded a big truck with supplies and drove it to that region.

Noting how the canned food drive provides direct service to those in need, “Mo” Gannon said, “It goes from here to them.”

Volunteer Phil Chimento from St. Patrick Parish in Rockville noted that it was gratifying to think how all the food they collected will one day end up at someone’s table, helping to feed the hungry in this community.  The food drive is a work of faith, he said. “It’s a fundamental part of our faith to reach out to our fellow human beings and help.”

Then Chimento summarized the drive, which has grown from a family going door-to-door to a mammoth community-wide effort, in words which Pope Francis and Greg Gannon would appreciate. “Everyday saints, that’s what we’re all called to be,” he said.