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Perham packs 435,888 meals for starving children

The Rev. Phil Holtan thought he was pitching an ambitious project to his church council in this town of fewer than 3,000 residents: Raise $17,000 to cover the cost of 100,000 nutritious meals for hungry children and enlist residents to package them.

"You're not from around here, are you?" responded Calvary Lutheran President Terry Hepola. "You're thinking too small."

Several months later, Perham residents flocked to the town's community center Friday and Saturday to pack at total of 435,888 meals for the Twin Cities Christian-based nonprofit Feed My Starving Children. Every church, service club and school in town got involved.

Residents raised almost $70,000 for the meals, which should feed 1,000 children for a year.

Ahren Grebner of Feed My Starving Children said he rarely sees an entire community pitch in.

"It's nothing short of miraculous," he said. "For them to pack 400,000 meals - that's really remarkable."

It all began last spring, when then-high school senior Karlie Miller and other Perham teens attended a Lutheran youth group event featuring a Feed My Starving Children drive in Alexandria, Minn.

Last year, volunteers for the group bought and packed more than 70 million meals for children in 55 countries, from Haiti to Zambia. As Miller found, pouring soy, rice and dried vegetables in plastic bags was more empowering than just writing a check.

When Miller became Miss Perham last summer, she made replicating her Alexandria experience in Perham her platform project: "I thought it would be great opportunity to become a stronger, closer community."

She approached Holtan, her pastor, for help. He pitched the idea to the town's ministerial association, and before long, all Perham churches were on board. Soon, service clubs, businesses and groups of friends joined in by raising money and committing to pack meals.

"No one has said no to us," Holtan said. Some 3,000 people, including residents of neighboring communities, signed on.

Fellow organizer Tamara Langen compares the fundraising over the past two months to the famed Perham turtle races each summer - slow and steady.

Dean's Country Market grocery store donated $800 worth of M&M tubes to public school students and asked that they fill them up with quarters.

When Langen went to the elementary school to collect the tubes, one girl hung back bashfully. When everyone had left, she sheepishly announced she once had two quarters. She brightened up when Langen explained that buys three meals. The students raised $4,000.

Public, private and homeschooled students kicked off the two-day packing effort at the Perham Area Community Center Friday. Just before noon, 300 juniors and seniors learned that 18,000 kids die of starvation each day, and that the meals they just packed would feed 200 children for a year.

"It's kind of weird we could do that in an hour," said Perham High junior Sara Lee, adding, "I don't think we've ever had anything this big in Perham."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529