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Eagle Scouts fight starvation

To become an Eagle Scout, a young man must choose and complete a project that demonstrates he can see beyond the narrow focus of his teen world to the needs of others around him. In the case of Zachary Clark, son of Scott and Mary Beth Clark and a member of Troop 286 in the Sandy Willow Creek 9th Ward, and Courtland Starr, son of Gary and Kathleen Starr and a member of Troop 554 in the Holladay 11th Ward, that quest led to a far distant, strife-filled country.

For the past three months the boys collected more than 5,900 bottles of vitamins for the malnourished children of North Korea. It has been a project, says Courtland, where "we really felt we could make a difference."For the last half of this century, North Korea has been a hermit kingdom - fiercely independent, practicing isolationism to the "Nth" degree - the communist country has wanted little contact with the rest of the world. About a year ago reports began to dribble out that North Korea was a society in dire need.

Severe floods in 1995 and 1996 destroyed land, crops, fertilizer supplies and irrigation systems, creating a drastic food shortage. Hopes of a better crop in 1997 were shattered by severe drought in the heartlands and by typhoons that flooded coastal rice growing areas with salt water. Wire service reports predict a total food shortfall in the coming year of about half of what is needed to feed the nation's 24 million people.

Children have been hard hit by the disasters. Relief agency officials estimate more than a third of the children under age 6 - roughly 800,000 - suffer from malnutrition. Of these, some 80,000 cases are severe. Wire photos show weak, emaciated bodies and pitiful, suffering faces.

Relief agencies estimate that humanitarian need will be essential at least through the 1998 fall harvest. Nations and peoples around the world responded to the call for assistance. Private relief agencies stepped up. Among them has been Latter-day Saint Charities.

"We have been asked as church members to look out for each other," says Garry R. Flake, field operations manager for the church's humanitarian services division. "In a shrinking world, we must look out for people wherever they are.

"The First Presidency has taken the lead in reaching out to all nations and peoples," he says. For example, more than $3 million in relief supplies have gone to former Yugoslavian states. At the church's Sort Center, shipments have gone and are being put together for Vietnam, countries in Africa, South America and other parts of the world. "As President Hinckley says, mercy must go before politics. We are careful not to take sides; we only want to help."

Since 1995, the church has provided more than $3.1 million in commodities and essential supplies to North Korea. Since July, the church has shipped 2,150 tons of corn, powdered milk, flour and medical supplies and more are scheduled. The figures show not only the size of the contribution but also the size of the need.

That's where the vitamins collected by Zachary Clark and Courtland Starr come in.

"When I was in North Korea in June, officials specifically said they needed vitamins. When a child gets to a certain point, when he hasn't eaten for a long time, vitamins are the only way to bring him back," says Flake.

"Sister Evans (LaRita Evans, director of the "pharmacy" at the sort center) loaded me down with two suitcases - 92 pounds - of basic antibiotics, analgesics and a few vitamins. When we opened them, the clinic workers immediately reached for the vitamins. They knew what they were and what they could do." Vitamin A can stave off blindness, for example. Vitamin C prevents scurvy. The B vitamins eliminate rickets. All are terrible consequences of malnutrition.

According to the Scouts' best calculations, if each Korean child receives vitamins once a day for a month, the boys have already collected 16,696 doses - enough vitamins to benefit that many children. And they still have one more large shipment promised from Weider Food Companies. "They told the boys to come and bring a covered van, so we're not quite sure what they'll get," says Scott Clark.

So far, vitamins have come from the boys' Scout troops and from Albertsons, Smith's, Dan's, Associated Foods, Intermountain Health Care (Mission Services), the Humanitarian Service Center and many, many individual donors. Some 120 of the bottles came from students of Oakdale Elementary School, where Zachary's brother and sister, Joshua and Jessica, solicited on his behalf.

It is more than Garry Flake ever hoped for when he suggested to the boys' fathers that this could be a good Eagle Scout project. "He told them not to be too ambitious, to aim for 1,000 bottles each," says Clark.

And now the vitamins, boxed in cases, piled on flats, are at the Sort Center, awaiting the next shipment to North Korea. More could still come.

"The boys have done a tremendous job," says Flake, who is not a bit disappointed that they didn't stop at the lower quota.

The boys, who are cousins, chose to work on the project from a list of options put together by their families and leaders, so they came to it with desire. For Zack, there was added interest in the fact that he is Korean. "It's my country, too," he says.

"Zack's 14, at an age when it is hard to get him interested in things, but he was really interested in this," says his father. "I think his heritage was a real part of that."

The boys made up fliers to hang in their wards and schools. They talked in church, made phone calls, waited for people to call back, collected money to buy the vitamins from sources that agreed to sell the tablets at cost. They gathered up bottles from individuals and helped with deliveries of the bigger donations. They took calls from other Scout leaders.

And when they got home from taking the latest batch down to the Sort Center, "Courtland was just soaring," said Gary Starr. "He nailed his brother and sister and was talking about how many doses they had collected, how many children they were going to help."

And, says Garry Flake, there is no doubt that their contribution will make a difference. Not only medically, but "it will mean so much to the North Koreans to know that these vitamins were collected by young people, for them to know those young people have reached out across so many miles."

Go home and pour as much rice as you can into your hand, says Flake. "Then see if you can make three meals out of it." That's the situation many of the North Koreans are in. "They simply don't have enough food to feed their people."

Visiting there is a fascinating, but in many ways painful, experience. "This is a silent famine. There is tremendous malnourishment. You don't see people dying, but you see them suffering."

He tells of going into a 1,300-bed hospital. "There was no one there. No one in intensive care; no one in surgery; no one in the wards. `We can't admit any patients,' they told us. `We don't have the food or the medicine to care for them.' "

He tells of visiting a farm in a rural area. "We saw some men sitting by the crops, and they had some big nets spread out over the plants. We thought they were there to scare the birds away. But it turned out that every time a little sparrow flew into the net, the men grabbed it to take home and cook."

He tells of not seeing very many elderly people at all. "There's no way to tell, of course, but we heard speculation that perhaps the older people are forgoing food, so the younger ones can eat." The people are devoted to family, he says, so it could be true.

Protocol and going through channels are important, but government leaders have been very receptive, he says.

Good things happen when you help others. That is one message that Garry Flake believes strongly. He likes to tell the "Teddy Bear Story," an incident that happened in Croatia. A load of food and medical supplies arrived, and with it came a big bundle of teddy bears. Church-service volunteers were thrilled that someone had remembered the children, but when they got to counting, they found there were 61 children waiting in the relief line and only 59 bears. "How can we hand these out and disappoint some of the children?" they wondered. But there was no way to get more bears right away or to not hand out the desperately needed supplies until more bears could be found. So, they handed out the bears, and every child got one. " `We know there were 59 bears; we know there were 61 children,' they told me, `but every child got a bear.' Miracles happen when we reach out to help. The Lord works through us is many ways."

Courtland Starr and Zachary Clark may never know the miracles they helped with, may never know how lives have been changed because of their efforts. They do know they have fulfilled the goals of their project. They have learned leadership and compassion, skills that will enrich their own lives. And they know the warm feeling that comes when you look beyond yourselves to the needs of others.

"It feels good," says Zack, simply. And then, after a thoughtful pause, "real good."