Coquitlam Rotary program feeds 24 students and their families

The Starfish Pack program started in the Coquitlam school district last September.

The boxes of honey nut oat cereal go in first.

Then the packages of spaghetti and sauce jars.

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Pasta side dishes and containers of macaroni and cheese are loaded in, too, as are Premium Plus crackers, tins of tuna, canned vegetables, Nutri-Grain granola bars, plastic bowls of diced peaches and fresh fruit.

The Valentine's Day dark pomegranate chocolates are popped in last.

The dozen volunteers tasked to fill the 24 Starfish Packs form an assembly line to gather the goods, bought at cost from Save-on-Foods in Pinetree Village.

Each Thursday, Jason Chifan, the youth and children ministries pastor at Coquitlam's Westwood Community Church, collects the backpacks in the morning from two elementary schools, wipes them down and readies them for loading.

And within three hours, the bags are back in the vice-principals' offices for collection by students.

It's enough food to feed 24 families in need for the weekend, said Katrina Shelast who helped launch the Starfish Pack program last September.

With the help of her service club, Coquitlam Rotary Sunrise — and sponsorship from businesses such as Hair We Are, Sharon Perry Inc., Keller Williams Elite Realty, The Mortgage Shoppers, Montridge, Meridian RV and Harris Johnson Team — the initiative has proven to be a success.

While relatively new to the Tri-Cities, the Starfish Pack program has been operating for a few years in other municipalities around the province. Rotary Clubs and other service organizations in Abbotsford, Aldergrove, Chilliwack, Delta, Langley and Vernon help feed kids in need through Starfish; Duncan, on Vancouver Island, will soon join the list and Shelast said Coquitlam expects to add a third school by the next academic year.

"There's a lot of need. It's in areas where you don't expect it," she said. "There are plenty of families living in basements and rental suites all over our community. It's not obvious. There are a lot of working poor."

Students who get the weekly backpacks are referred by their schools' principal or school counsellor, she said. And carrying one carries no stigma, Shelast noted. "The kids are happy to have them and look forward to picking them up every week."

Still, the program isn't cheap. The cost is $525 per child annually and donations are always needed.

Last month, accountant Sharon Perry and the Coquitlam Express teamed up at a hockey game to raise money and build awareness about Starfish — an event that brought in more than $6,400 for the cause, enough to feed a dozen kids for a year.

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