Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, in preparation for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Washington next month, is sponsoring a parish-based and school-based food drive.

Organizers of the "Hunger to Hope" food drive say collecting the food will be a visible sign of faith.

Pope Benedict once said, "... it is possible to feel Christ's presence tangibly in the brethren who are hungry and in those who offer them food. Here, one can experience that when we love our neighbor, we become better acquainted with God."

The "Hunger to Hope" food drive will be held Thursday, April 10, in Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese and the weekend of April 12-13 in parishes. The pope will be in Washington April 15-18, and then head on to New York, where he will stay until April 20.

Students are being asked to donate particular food items based on the grade they are in. Parishioners will donate particular foods depending on the letter their last names begin with. A list of the food items has been sent to parishes and schools. (See sidebar box for more information.)

Donations, which will benefit the hungry in Washington and Southern Maryland, will be picked up April 13-15 from locations throughout the archdiocese.

For more information on the "Hunger to Hope" food drive, call Jay Brown at 202-772-4320 or call Joan Fowler-Brown at 202-772-4372.

Meanwhile, another service project has been created to celebrate the historic visit of the pope

The National Catholic Educational Association has crafted a unique "birthday gift" for Pope Benedict XVI, who will celebrate his 81st birthday on April 16, , the second day of his six-day visit to the United States.

The NCEA, which represents Catholic education at all levels, has issued an invitation to Catholic elementary and high school students, students in parish religious education programs, college students and seminarians to do voluntary acts of service in honor of the pontiff's birthday.

The project is called "Birthday Blessings for Pope Benedict XVI: A gift of public service from U.S. Catholic youth and students."

Through their participation in the project, students can choose how to spend their time volunteering. Acts of service, as defined by the NCEA program, are anything that helps another person or improves the environment.

This may include canned food drives, visiting nursing homes, writing letters to members of the armed forces or shut-ins, raising money for a charity or cleaning up a local park.

NCEA established a Web site, org, to help schools, parishes and individuals learn more about the effort and to register their volunteer hours. Service projects must be completed by May 31, 2008.

Through an online "pledge form," the site will gather information about the number of participants, the total hours volunteered and the kind of service provided. To learn more about the "Birthday Blessings" project, call the NCEA at 202-337-6232.