HARRISVILLE, Weber County — Most Thursday afternoons, Armani McFarland volunteers at the thrift store at her church or reads to a younger child.
This Thursday, though, the 10-year-old will be in Salt Lake City to accept Catholic Community Services of Utah’s Unsung Hero Award — an honor that’s generally bestowed on adults who have served their communities for decades.
Even though she’s just in fifth grade, there’s nothing childish about the way she approaches the issues of hunger and need.
“She gets it. She gets that she can make a difference. One of the big ways she does that is to inspire others,” said Marcie Valdez, northern Utah director of Catholic Community Services.
When Armani’s third-grade teacher taught her that children go to bed hungry — even in affluent countries such as the United States — she told her mother that she had to do something to help.
She wasn’t satisfied with her mother’s suggestion that she collect some canned goods, even spend some of her “give” money to buy it, and then donate it to Catholic Community Services’ Joyce Hansen Hall Food Bank in Ogden.
“She said, ‘No. I want to do more. I want to host a food drive,’” recalled her mother, Cassidy McFarland.
The next thing she knew, then-8-year-old Armani was standing outside a grocery story handing out fliers to drum up support for her food drive. She also handed out fliers at her school, Majestic Elementary in Harrisville.
“By the end of her food drive, she ended up collecting 1,000 pounds of food all on her own,” McFarland said.
That success launched a series of other donation drives and fundraising efforts that have included running a lemonade stand and conducting bake sales that raised $1,200 to buy backpacks and school supplies for Catholic Community Services' annual giveaway.
She’s currently collecting toothbrushes to give to children at area shelters and assistance agencies.
Armani, who lives in West Point, has learned to leverage the help of the community. For instance, this is an excerpt of a letter she wrote to area dentists asking their help with her latest project:
“My name is Armani McFarland. I am 10 years old and am a fifth grader at Majestic Elementary. I’m conducting a toothbrush drive to help make sure kids in our community have what they need to keep their teeth clean and healthy. Any donation at all would help me reach my goal.”
Armani is not beyond working her charm to get people to open up their pantries, pocketbooks and their hearts, Valdez said.
“With her sweet smile, it’s really hard to say no,” Valdez said.
"(It's more like) she doesn't take no for an answer," Cassidy McFarland said. “She doesn’t like being told no. She's just so pesty sometimes that they just give in to her.”
Like the time she wanted to advertise her lemonade stand on a local radio station.
“She just emailed them and then she called them and she emailed them,” her mother said. Finally, the hosts of KZHT's morning show relented and gave her some air time.
The radio hosts became part of growing network of people Armani contacts when she’s conducting a drive. That network includes her classmates, who collectively gave more than 1,000 stuffed animals to give to public safety and ambulance services so they can provide them to children.
She also has working relationships with business executives such as the CEOs of Mountain America Credit Union and American Nutrition, a pet food maker.
While it’s fun to rub elbows with people who can readily contribute financially to her drives or fundraising efforts, she relishes the personal contacts with people she serves, her mother said.
After an effort to raise funds and in-kind contributions for more than 600 school-supply backpacks, she received the added gift of being able to distribute them to children in need.
“I just like to see the smile on people’s faces,” Armani said.
The reaction of one little girl has stuck with her, she said. “When I gave her the backpack, she had a big smile on her face and she put it on her back and she danced around. It was like Christmas morning for her.”
Armani finds small ways to give, too. She’s made small bags to give to people she sees on the street. Each bag has a bottle of water, a pair of socks, gloves, a miniature Bible and a few Bible passages.
She keeps the bags in her mother’s car and when she sees someone whom she believes needs a pick-me-up, she’ll tell her mother, “Let’s stop and give them a bag.”
Most people are grateful, “or at least they act that way,” McFarland said.
And Armani? “She’s beaming. She’s on cloud nine.”
Through giving and serving, Armani has learned a lot about needs near and far. Instead of Christmas gifts, she asks her parents to make contributions in her name to World Vision, which aids children and families worldwide.
"I have everything I need or want. Some people don't have a house or food on the table or a bed to sleep in," she said.
Valdez said Armani is wise beyond her years when it comes to understanding the power of service.
“It doesn’t take a million-dollar check. It takes moments of caring and recognizing there’s a need and knowing we can make a difference,” she said.
At Catholic Community Services' food bank, the needs are ongoing and growing. Prior to the economic downturn, needy people viewed food pantries as a source of emergency food, Valdez said.
“Any more, our families living in poverty look to us as part of their monthly food budget. They wouldn’t get to the end of the month without the additional support they received from us.”
Catholic Community Services is able to help because of the generosity of the people in northern Utah, she said.
“It’s amazing to me we serve 2,300 households every month and they receive a full shopping cart of food. We give away 200,000 pounds of food every month and we never run out of food. That’s because of people like Armani who care and continue to support our mission."
Catholic Community Services of Utah's annual Humanitarian Awards Dinner recognizes people who work to make a difference in the lives of people in need. This year’s honorees also include:
• Frank and Barbara Layden
• The presiding bishopric of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
• The University of Utah’s Lowell Bennion Community Service Center