The story of Operation Starfish® began in 1998 with a late evening stroll by a man and his dog. Father Dick Martin, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Burke, Virginia, and his pooch, “Pete,” were walking one night before Lent “chatting” about “what-ifs.” What if each family in the parish would forego one order of french fries? What if they would subtract one topping from their weekly pizza? How much money could they raise to help those less fortunate?
Fr. Martin couldn’t believe the numbers when he calculated them: 2,500 families saving just 50 cents a day for the 40 days of Lent could donate $50,000 to make a difference in the lives of the poor. What a significant result from such an insignificant sacrifice!
This simple program of sacrifice was far more successful than Fr. Martin predicted. The parish family was enthusiastic when the idea was presented to them. That first year, Church of the Nativity raised nearly $67,000! They decided to use the funds to build 27 simple houses in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, working through the international Christian charity, Food For The Poor, Inc.
The name, “Operation Starfish®,” came in the second year. In February 1999, a dozen Nativity parishioners accompanied Fr. Martin on a pilgrimage to Haiti. They wanted to see for themselves what their parish had done to relieve the suffering of some of that country’s most destitute people.
Bright smiles and beaming faces greeted the pilgrims as they reached the small enclave at Canapé Verte, in the hills near Haiti’s capitol, Port-au-Prince. They had hiked from the end of the dirt road across the hillside to see the one-room wooden houses their parish had built, and to meet the families who are now living with real roofs over their heads.
These families had barely survived the horror of Cité Soleil, a slum clutching 500,000 of the poorest of the world’s poor in its grasp. The Church of the Nativity pilgrims were overjoyed at what their compassion had accomplished for the new home owners, who welcomed their visitors with open arms and full hearts.
Despite the progress at Canapé Verte, the Church of the Nativity pilgrims knew there was much more to be done for the poor of Haiti. At a prayer meeting on the first night of that pilgrimage, parishioners spoke of being overwhelmed with the scope of the problems. “How can we possibly make a difference?” one asked. Searching for an answer, Fr. Martin told his parishioners the story of the young boy and the starfish:
As a young boy walked the beach at dawn, he noticed an old man ahead of him picking up starfish and tossing them into the sea. Catching up with the man, the boy asked why he was doing this. The old man explained to the boy that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun.
“But the beach goes on for miles and there are millions of starfish,” exclaimed the boy. “How can your effort make any difference?”
The old man looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it safely into the waves. He turned to the boy and said, “It made a difference to that one.”
A parishioner spoke up after Fr. Martin finished the story. “Why don’t we call our work ‘Operation Starfish?'” he asked. Heartened by the Starfish story, and renewed by their pilgrimage, Church of the Nativity parishioners recommitted themselves to helping the poor, at home as well as in Haiti.