Project Starfish

Hometown Heroes, People
on December 9, 2007

The voices of young and old singing Christmas carols break the silence on a cold December evening in St. Paul, Minn. Homeowners pull back their drapes at the first sound of the familiar voices of carolers who are braving the wintry weather to bring Christmas cheer and help those less fortunate.

The 100 carolers are part of Project Starfish, a group whose mission is to raise money for and awareness of homeless families through the songs of Christmas.

It all began in 1998 when Pam Jandl, a child and family development specialist at Head Start—a government program for families in poverty—overheard a conversation. A woman with a special needs child and an abusive husband came into the Head Start office asking for help so she and her child could go to a local shelter.

“I hear lots of sad stories, but I just couldn’t put this woman out of my mind, no matter how hard I tried,” recalls Jandl, 54, who phoned her then co-worker Mary Vanderwert. “I said if we could just get some money together this mother could find an apartment and she’d be safe.”

Although neither woman was in a financial situation to help, they were determined to do something. The Sunday after Thanksgiving they rounded up friends and acquaintances to discuss ways to help. Many ideas were thrown around, but it was a youngster who finally suggested going door to door, singing carols and asking for donations.

Jandl says she’s still amazed how quickly everything fell into place. They picked a day, time, a neighborhood and then came up with a name for their organization—Project Starfish.

“One of my favorite children’s stories is about the boy who throws starfish back into the ocean one at a time to save them,” says Vanderwert, 56. “Project Starfish seemed appropriate because our goal was to try and help one person at a time.”

Two weeks after the meeting, 50 people went caroling and collected $2,000 in donations. The mother, however, had returned to her husband. That’s when Jandl’s church, St. Timothy Lutheran, suggested another family in need.

Today, Project Starfish has about 100 carolers, who range in age from 4 to 70. Each year, they visit the same 500-home neighborhood and use only bells for their musical accompaniment. Around Thanksgiving they send out fliers and donation envelopes that are rolled together and tied with ribbon to distinguish them from junk mail. Very few homeowners opt not to answer the door, and Jandl says most now consider them a regular holiday fixture.

“Raising money for the homeless is a wonderful mission,” says Thomas Kromroy, a homeowner in the Crocus Hill neighborhood. “And it’s enjoyable for us to hear them sing, too.” v All the donations are used solely to help poor families pay their rent. Since its inception, Project Starfish has raised $125,000 and aided 85 families. v “I’m grateful and appreciative that people like Pam, Mary and Project Starfish care,” says recipient Lena Bradley, who is completing her college degree and hopes to work as a teacher. “As I move forward in my career, I’ll be able to look back at the time I needed help and to being in a position to someday help the next family in need.”

Vanderwert says the caroling group would like to get more children involved with Project Starfish because it’s a great way to teach them that they can make a difference in their own community. “I think Project Starfish also sends a message to everyone that people really do care about one another,” Jandl says. “And I believe the donations we receive are really pennies from heaven.”

Susan Palmquist is writer in Eden Prairie, Minn.