Wiedmer: COVID-19 can't derail coach John Starr's mission to feed Howard's hungry kids

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Howard football coach John Starr wears a mask and gloves as he passes out home-cooked meals to one of his players on Friday. While Starr and his wife Jennie have helped feed those in need even before school campuses closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the situation has made their charitable acts even more important.

It's 4:49 on Friday afternoon when Howard School football coach John Starr parks his white 2008 Chevrolet Suburban in front of the home of one of his most impoverished players.

In the back seat of Starr's SUV are 23 white plastic foam food boxes. Inside each one are two homemade cheeseburgers wrapped in foil, a pack of peanut butter crackers and a small bag of chips.

When the player we'll refer to as Robert (for privacy reasons) emerges from his house a few seconds later, Starr - who's wearing a protective mask and rubber gloves in accordance with COVID-19 safety guidelines - rolls down a window and asks, from a safe distance, of course: "How many do you need today?"

Robert replies that he needs four meals: one for himself, one for a brother who attends a different high school and two for his sisters. With that, Starr pulls four food boxes from his backseat and hands them to the young man, who instantly breaks into a wide, sweet smile before saying "Thank you."

It is a scene that would not only be repeated at least six to eight more times that evening, but has been repeated by Starr almost nightly since the coronavirus pandemic shut down our schools and pretty much everything else in mid-March.

"Hunger didn't stop when this started," Starr said of the coronavirus. "Plus, it's given me an opportunity to check on these kids. See how they're doing. Are they taking care of their academics? Bringing them food just makes it easier to do that."

It is important to note that where Starr and his wife Jennie are concerned, this amazing act of kindness has continued in one form or another since he first arrived at Howard almost five years ago. Until the pandemic hit, it was mostly limited to breakfast for all those kids - not just football players, but any student - who kept showing up at school with empty stomachs because their families couldn't or wouldn't feed them each morning.

Pancakes, waffles, biscuits and gravy, cereal, quiche - "My personal favorite," Starr said - whatever he could whip together in an hour or so before school began, that's what he brought with him each morning. Every morning.

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Howard football coach John Starr and his players head to the locker room for halftime during a game at Brainerd on Aug. 30, 2019.

Then there are the Thanksgiving dinners he started for the whole financially depressed community that borders Howard's campus. Somehow, some way, with a lot of help from friends and family, the 58-year-old Starr has begun one of the best traditions in this city with his annual "Tigers Giving Celebration," which has already grown from 150 happily fed souls that first year in 2016 to more than 300 this past November.

"We just feel like it's our mission to help people," Starr said of his and Jennie's work. "And it's more for me than the kids. I have a blast doing this."

Fortunately, the meals the Starrs distribute each evening aren't, in most cases, the only food these kids are eating. The Hamilton County school system has gone the extra mile these past couple of months in making one to two meals available daily for those young people who need them, and many of these kids are getting at least some food at home.

But as the economy worsens, Starr worries more and more about Howard's students and families, and how much more dire their situations can become before they, hopefully, get better.

"It's hard to put into words," he said. "It's an eye-opening struggle."

As this newspaper's incomparable David Cook wrote last Sunday, this city is filled with special folks who believe their mission is to help those less fortunate. Tony Oliver and Troy Rogers will have served more than 9,000 meals to the hungry and the homeless since the pandemic began. Lakweshia Ewing, Marie Mott, Chris Sands and LaDarius Price - who has also long provided winter coats for kids in need - have similarly contributed mightily to feeding the poor.

So the Starrs, thankfully, have a fair amount of company in the compassion department. But every bit helps. So much. And they're doing this nearly every day of the week on two educators' salaries, the meals never dropping below 20 a day and sometimes pushing 30.

"It's very important," Robert said of the Starrs' efforts before he carried his dinner boxes back into the house. "There are nights we don't eat without Coach Starr. I'll call him, and he'll always say 'I'm on my way.'"

photo Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Howard football coach John Starr talks with quarterback Marquez Williams during a home game against Brainerd on Aug. 18, 2018.

The process starts around 4 most afternoons, right after Starr has finished with his online duties at school.

"It takes about an hour and a half to prepare the food, then about that much time to deliver it," said Starr, who lives in East Brainerd but makes most of his deliveries in the East Lake and Highland Park areas.

Regarding what he chooses to serve each day, he said, "A lot of it has to do with what's on sale. But I also try to think like a kid. What do they want to eat? You want it to be nutritious, but you also want them to eat it. We"ll fix hot dogs, chicken wings, mac and cheese, cookies, hamburgers. Whatever we think they'll eat."

He also said he and Jennie will keep doing this for as long as they can financially.

"I just try to impact those I can impact," Starr said.

Said Robert, the hungry Hustlin' Tiger who was about to be fed: "He's the best coach in the world."

More importantly, especially in times such as these, he's one of our little world's best people.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.