Sustaining Backpacks

Two dedicated Okanagan Women lead the way to provide nourishment for local hungry children, one Starfish Backpack at a time.

From her early years of helping her parents with church fundraisers to her first formal volunteer work as a 14-year-old Candy Striper at St Joseph’s Hospital in Comox, Kalamalka Rotarian of the Year Carmen Heather Larsen was encouraged to give back to the community.

Her Rotarian dad, Don, a hardware store manager, and her mom, Judy, a retail worker, have been her greatest inspiration for involvement in Rotary.

“Dad was the one in his club in charge of logistics, very organized, knew how to get things done and knew the right people for the job,” says Carmen. “My mom was his right hand. She would be there to support him, help with anything she could because she also believed in the ideals of Rotary.”

Carmen spent her high school years in Courtenay, then went on to McGill to pursue a BA in Asian Studies and History. During that time, she worked at a sexual assault crisis line.

Later while completing her MEd in educational psychology and special education at UBC, Larsen spent six years as a Big Sister with Big Sisters of BC Lower Mainland.

“This was the volunteer work that had the biggest effect on me,” says Carmen.

“I learned so much about poverty, addictions and class from these experiences.”

After completing her MD at Dalhousie and post-graduate work in family medicine at the University of Alberta, Carmen and her husband, local otolaryngologist Jacek Szudek, relocated to Vernon with their three daughters, Mira, Leni and Esme.

“I always wanted to join Rotary once I settled in one place.

I looked for a club that had active women members in leadership roles and had a strong community focus,” says Carmen, who became a member of Kalamalka Rotary in 2014.

Carmen’s current favourite long-term project is the Starfish Pack Program, an initiative that addresses food insecurity and hunger by providing a weekend backpack of two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, fresh fruit and snacks for children in need.

Carmen heard about the program, started in 2013 by the Rotary Club of Abbotsford. As Community Projects Chair, Carmen spearheaded the development of the program facilitated by Kalamalka Rotary. “We started a pilot program with 20 backpacks in one school in April 2016. Now, I know each weekend 90 kids in Vernon have some extra food in their tummy because of individuals and businesses in Vernon who have donated to this project. I also know many more children need these meals.”

So how does she fit Rotary into her busy schedule as a mom, wife and doctor?

“I prioritize Thursday as me-time.

My husband and kids know how much it means to me.

The day starts at Vernon’s Salvation Army Food Bank Warehouse. A dedicated cadre of volunteers gather each week to fill the backpacks, then deliver them to the schools involved. Later in the day Rotary lunch is my oasis of fellowship, laughter and belonging. I always feel good leaving the meetings. Around the world, other Rotarians like me are also trying to make the world a better, more equitable place for all.”

In an effort to expand the Starfish pack program into other areas of the Okanagan, Carmen travelled south to make a presentation to the Penticton Rotary Club. Almost immediately enthusiastic Penticton Rotarians Gord Watson and Milton Orris came north to gather more information and join a Kalamalka Rotary Starfish packing session. They started the Penticton program in April 2017.

Enter Tracy Van Raes. Chair of the parent advisory committee of the first school involved, Tracy was also active in Penticton JCI, an organization that trains young adults to affect positive change in themselves, their community and their world. “At 40 years of age I was about to ‘age out’. Rotary caught wind of this. I joined in August 2017 and was asked to take the project over from outgoing Starfish Chair Gord Watson.”

“I remember the feeling of teamwork and hard work – both by the volunteers and the triathletes.

My inspiration for involvement in community projects comes from the results.


“I saw the impact of the project on our students first hand. I knew the need and wanted to help grow the project.”

Born in Princeton, BC, Tracy attended numerous schools in her early elementary school years then arrived in the Okanagan at the age of ten. “My mother, Kim Kirkham, was in banking. As she moved up through the ranks we moved around a lot. My father is a retired Care Aid.” Tracy attended Summerland Secondary then studied arts at Okanagan College at the Kelowna Campus.

By day, Tracy is the Marketing and Community Relations Manager at Penticton’s Total Restoration Services. Twenty four/seven she’s a busy single mom. “My daughter Jordynn, 18, graduated in June and has moved to Castlegar to study Wildlife, Fish and Recreation at Selkirk College. My son Jackson, 11, attends late French Immersion at KVR middle School.” Tracy counts working at an aid station for Ironman in the early 90s as her first volunteer experience.

Further motivation presented itself close to home in the form of two local women. “My top two mentors would be Diana Stirling, owner of Loco Landing Adventure Park and Mare McHale of Redhead Mare Media. I like to surround myself with like-minded individuals. It pushes me to do better, to always strive for more.”

Perhaps her greatest inspiration comes from Penticton philanthropist David Kampe. “My daughter was honoured to receive one of his vocational bursaries in June this year. I am humbled by the small amount I do compared to him. He is an extraordinary man.”

Tracy describes herself as driven, passionate and dependable. “I will not commit to anything unless I am 110 per cent in it. That’s my Golden Rule.” Each week Tracy personally delivers Starfish packs to two schools. Currently our program services five schools, distributing 45 backpacks. Each week five volunteers pick up and deliver, five others pack.

What does she get out of it? “There is great satisfaction in making a difference in the lives of children, directly and indirectly, the children getting their backpacks, their siblings as well as their classmates who learn empathy from this program,” says Tracy. “Starfish is my number one community priority right now. Children having enough food is first and foremost in my world.

What I know for sure: Once I have committed to something, you can always count on me.”

There is no doubt the lives of many Okanagan children are healthier and happier because of dedicated leaders like Tracy Van Raes and Carmen Larsen.

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