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A harvest from the heart

When Chandra Starr, 14, launched a campaign to raise $10,000 for those in need, she not only wanted to feed them, she wanted to provide them with something that’s considered a luxury item for many families: fresh, organic produce.

Last February, Starr, an eighth-grader at St. Stephen School in Glenwood Springs, launched a Million Penny Project to support the El Jebel-based Growing Food Forward Foundation, a nonprofit that builds gardens to provide produce to needy families on the Western Slope. By the end of the project in April, she’d collected nearly twice her goal: 1,904,056 pennies ($19,040.56).

“I was trying to get my Silver Award for Girl Scouts and we had to do something for the community; I wanted to do something close to my heart,” Starr told the Denver Catholic from her Glenwood Springs home.

This particular cause was close to her heart because she had experienced what it was like go to without produce when she and her mother, Kimberly Starr Walker, were homeless when she was 5 years old.

“We lived in a tent for a month when it was still cold and snowy,” Starr said.

They had become homeless when Walker, a stay-at-home mother, was in a relationship that turned abusive.

“We packed a bag and left at midnight,” Walker explained, then they set up their makeshift home in a camp site outside town.

Not having a job meant not having money, so she “got food stamps immediately,” she said. That provided $165 a month which didn’t leave room for fresh produce, so to stretch it, she bought less expensive canned and boxed processed foods—foods loaded with sugar, fat and sodium.

“We had to make it work,” Walker said.

She began to worry about her daughter’s health as she gained weight, experienced headaches and stomachaches, and was falling asleep in class. Doctors diagnosed her with early-stage diabetes. This spurred her mother to become educated on more healthy eating habits, and drastically changed their diets.

Once their housing was secured, both mother and daughter learned how to garden and improved their diet by incorporating fresh organic produce.

Starr is now diabetes-free and her mother works as produce manager at Vitamin Cottage. They maintain three gardens for their own produce, as well as to supplement meals they make for the Extended Table soup kitchen each month.

The nearly two million pennies raised for Growing Food Forward were collected in jars Starr placed at businesses throughout the area, as well as a GoFundMe crowdfunding account. When she was about half-way to her goal, Starr received national exposure when featured on “NBC News” with Ann Curry. After that, she quickly exceeded her goal. The money raised allowed for 92 gardens to be built, that generated more than 2,000 pounds of produce that was donated.

“I hope the gardens we’ve started will continue, and that they’ll continue to donate (the produce),” Starr said. “Because it does make a big difference.”

“It’s just all part of who she is,” Walker said of her daughter’s generosity. “Giving and loving.”

Last month she was included on Scholastic News’ list of “8 Coolest Kids We Met in 2014,” a roundup of inspiring, courageous and innovative kids featured in the organization’s magazines during the year. She was also honored by Catholic Charities Western Slope last November as the youngest recipient ever of the Msgr. Dentici Friends of Charity Award for outstanding volunteer service; and was recognized by the National Association of Nutrition Professionals for “changing the health of a nation.”

“I’m so very proud of her,” Walker said. “This all started with one little idea and has just exploded.”

The school is proud of her too.

“She’s the most humble, sweet, kind child you’ll ever meet,” said Glenda Oliver, principal. “She’s a beautiful spirit and they are a beautiful little family. We are happy they’ve been part of our family the last three years.”

Starr’s next project is in the works, but details are “secret at this point” she said. Several students from St. Stephen’s are on-board to help once it is announced in February.

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