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GU fans volunteer to help the hungry in Las Vegas

UPDATED: Sun., March 5, 2017

Volunteers from the Gonzaga University community, including from left, Terri Rambosek and Jeff Donahue, from Seattle, Maggie and Mark Wilson, from Meridian, Idaho, Mark Swanson, Spokane, Annie Marquard, Portland, and Mary Swanson, Spokane, sort oranges and apples into fresh fruit bundles for Three Square, March 5, 2017, in Las Vegas. The service project at the food bank was open to all WCC teams and their fans. The group of Zags, including one volunteer from Loyola Marymount, packed 1,200 bundles for Meals on Wheels. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Volunteers from the Gonzaga University community, including from left, Terri Rambosek and Jeff Donahue, from Seattle, Maggie and Mark Wilson, from Meridian, Idaho, Mark Swanson, Spokane, Annie Marquard, Portland, and Mary Swanson, Spokane, sort oranges and apples into fresh fruit bundles for Three Square, March 5, 2017, in Las Vegas. The service project at the food bank was open to all WCC teams and their fans. The group of Zags, including one volunteer from Loyola Marymount, packed 1,200 bundles for Meals on Wheels. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

LAS VEGAS – It’s undeniable: Gonzaga’s experience in the conference tournament business is the envy of college basketball.

If the Bulldogs can get by Santa Clara on Monday, they’ll make their 20th straight appearance in the West Coast Conference tournament championship game. There have been 14 titles won since 1999, and another six for the women. Five times Gonzaga has swept both in the same year.

Who does that?

Here’s something else not just to be envied, but emulated:

On Sunday afternoon, a small knot of Zags fans and alums rendezvoused at Three Square, southern Nevada’s only food bank and the area’s largest hunger relief organization, headquartered in North Las Vegas near Nellis Air Force Base. And in the space of a couple of hours, they packed about 2,700 pounds of produce that Three Square will provide for the Meals on Wheels program operated here by Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.

The food will be distributed to area seniors Tuesday, possibly in between two more title-game appearances for Gonzaga, should the seeds hold.

Who does that on a Vegas vacation?

Bringing the tournament here in 2009 was all about finding a fan destination, and the distractions to fill the hours between games are certainly many – from the gambling tables to the shows to less expensive amusements, not the least of which is simply watching the Fellini cast work the Strip. Sunday is usually a golf and pool day, though a near gale made this one not fit for either.

Yet it’s hard to think anyone had a better time on the WCC’s day off than the volunteer fruit packers.

“Just no fruit fights,” cautioned one of them.

No time for that. As the front line filled mesh bags with apples and oranges, the back end secured them with knots and loaded them into big boxes to be hauled off on a pallet jack. Barb Wiest kept the count and announced it every 100 bags.

In the meantime, they shared a little basketball talk – the ghastly first-half shooting against Pacific on Saturday night was dissected – and more about their own college days.

The old law school Thursday nights at the Bulldog Tavern. How easy it was to find a front-row seat at games – “even when John (Stockton) was playing.” Campus clubs and institutions.

“Are they still doing ‘The Wall,’” Maggie Wilson asked of the Paleolithic message center near Desmet Hall.

“I’m pretty sure the only thing holding up The Wall is paint,” cracked Terri Rambosek.

And sometimes they even tried to keep a sense of competition to go with what brought them to Vegas in the first place, as when someone tried to slide the box for spoiled fruit closer to make it easier to drop in discards.

“Hey,” protested Jeff Donahue, “that was my 3-point shot.”

Noted Drew Rieder, “This is about reflecting Gonzaga’s core mission, which is service to others. But it’s not just the service – it’s the joy they bring to it.”

Rieder works in Gonzaga’s alumni outreach efforts as Director of Regional Chapters, and as such puts together the service project each year. An original partner was Rebuilding Together, and volunteers would spend the day applying paint and other new touches to old and tired homes,

“It was great, but it took 8-10 hours sometimes,” Rieder said. “You’d end up with three or four people under the eaves trying to finish up before dark.”

So they found another like-minded partner in Three Square, where the efforts to combat hunger are aided by some 134,000 volunteer hours a year, according to Keeghan Alexander, the organization’s volunteer coordinator. The GU work party varies – it’s been as large as 40, or as intimate as the dozen or so who showed up Sunday. Even president Thayne McCulloh has shown up and “picked up a paint brush and a drill,” Rieder said.

Rieder casts for helpers at the Sunday Mass the WCC organizes for participating tourney-goers – and gets bites from outside the Gonzaga pond.

Jeff Lampe, a Loyola Marymount alum and once the Lions’ radio voice for 11 years, has been coming to pack food for four years.

“This is usually go-home day for our fans,” he said. “One of these years the team will make it to Monday and I’ll bring some more people.”

But it’s still mostly a Gonzaga enterprise. Mark Swenson of Spokane is part of a three-generation Zag family who’s been a part of the project with his wife, Mary, for several years.

So why is he juggling oranges and not rolling dice on a Sunday?

“To be brutally honest?” he said. “It’s like this. I was raised Catholic. But I’m not a very good Catholic and I wasn’t a very good student.

“But what did resonate from my Gonzaga days was that model of service to others. I just retired from 40 years of working for DSHS, so my whole career was helping populations that needed some assistance. When we started coming to the tournament, we thought, ‘Why not?’ It’s a good cause, and we enjoy doing it.”

And the basketball’s not bad, either.

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