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Local teens rise to the challenge of feeding neighbors in need

While he could be out playing soccer or video games with his friends, one young man decided to use his efforts to help others.

Akshaj Variath, 15, had the idea to start a community garden to raise vegetables for those less fortunate.

Variath, a high school student at Parkway Central, brought together a group of friends and fellow students to raise vegetables for the Circle of Concern food pantry in Valley Park.

Connect Community is a nonprofit organization that Variath started around eight months ago. It includes high schoolers from across St. Louis and is dedicated to improving the lives of those in need through various projects.

“We are a group of friends that saw a growing need to help many facing increased hardship during the pandemic,” Variath said. “Many of these people were already in dire need prior to the pandemic upending their lives.”

Members of Connect Community (Source: Akshaj Variath)

Members of Connect Community along with Variath include Adam Jose, Deo Reji, Devaang Nair, Alex Joseph, Abi Boshi, Jacob Matthews, Govind Menon, Medha Nevil, Sweta John, Aditi Navjith, Daya Deepu, Ajay Eisenberg and Thanvi, Vismaya Vinod and Sanjith Subhash.

But, Variath said, they couldn’t do it alone.

Variath contacted the city of Chesterfield and coordinated with Tom McCarthy, director of Parks, Recreation and Arts, to find a location to plant the garden and options for where to donate. The city offered space near the Chesterfield Valley Athletic Complex.

Lowes in Chesterfield and others from the community helped with donations and materials to install a fence and raised beds.

Community Connect members in spring 2021 (Source: Community Connect)

After the initial setup, team members have taken turns going to the garden every couple of weeks to check on the plants and ensure that the irrigation system is operating properly. They also meet on occasion to discuss gardening tips and how to maximize the output for vegetables.

“If there is someone knowledgeable about gardens, we try to learn as much as we can from them,” Variath said.

They started growing cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchinis and beans in the spring, but have since added peppers, eggplant and onions. They also help package the vegetables and bring them to Circle of Concern once each week.

Since most of the group’s participants are between 14 and 16 and don’t drive or own vehicles yet, they rely on parents to help with deliveries. The first donation to Circle of Concern was made on July 26.

So far, they have donated 211 pounds of produce to the food pantry, Variath said.

“These sorts of donations are incredibly beneficial to the variety and quantity of what we’re able to share,” said Cyndi Miller, executive director. “Fresh food is more expensive than other foods, so we’re thrilled to offer fresh food to clients.”

Circle of Concern serves thousands of people every year in west St. Louis County. The largest group they serve is mothers with children, Miller said.

“Fresh foods are so important to families,” she said. “Children definitely need nutrients as they’re developing and growing.”

Other groups provide fresh food as well, but Miller said she appreciates the younger group making good use of their time and looking to help neighbors in need.

“That’s special,” she said.

The food pantry also collects shelf staple items and are always in need of community donations. Learn more at circleoconcern.org.

Connect Community is involved in other charitable projects like raising money for hospitals. They started a fundraiser for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital and through a GoFundMe account have raised more than $3,417. The goal is to raise $7,500 by Sept. 18, when the hospital is holding a fundraiser.

The group even has its own website at mo-connect.org.

Variath said he feels good about helping others and already has more projects in the works.

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