Local girl’s mitzvah raises awareness of breast cancer

Local girl’s mitzvah raises awareness of breast cancer

Harli Starr takes Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October seriously.

This month the 12-year-old from Englewood Cliffs is supplying breast cancer patients at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center with stuffed lions named Courage for her bat mitzvah project.

Courage has made a long journey to Englewood. The story begins when Harli’s Aunt Sue Rothstein, her mother’s sister who lives in Atlanta, was diagnosed with breast cancer in July of 2008. When Harli and her mom went to Georgia after the surgery, they first saw the little stuffed lion tucked under Sue’s arm. A local breast cancer foundation had supplied the toys, which had been designed by an Atlanta-area nurse practitioner named Susan Casella. Courage has weighted paws and is intended to support surgical incisions as well as to provide comfort.

Harli Starr, left, and her mother, Arlene, prepare packages of Courage – the name of a specially made stuffed lion – for breast cancer patients at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.

A few months later, in February of 2009, Harli’s mother, Arlene Starr, was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Aunt Sue came from Atlanta to help and brought Courage for her sister. When Harli, whose bat mitzvah takes place on Sunday, Oct. 18, saw how useful the stuffed lion was for her mother and aunt, she decided she’d like to provide them for other women who are having breast cancer surgery for mastectomy and lymph node dissection.

“I had been trying to figure out my mitzvah project,” Harli says. “I wanted to help the world in some way. This seemed like a good way to do it.”

At Harli’s request, her aunt got in touch with Casella, who initially refused the request. She customarily ordered the lions, which are made in China, only once a year and only enough to supply the two Georgia hospitals that she worked with. However, after a little persistence on Aunt Sue’s part, Casella agreed to meet with her. During their conversation, Casella asked where Harli lived. They discovered an amazing connection: Casella grew up in Englewood Cliffs, two streets over from where the Starrs live.

Buoyed by this serendipitous news, Casella agreed to increase her order of the stuffed lions. So the 12-year-old set out to raise enough money to pay for the 25 that the hospital estimated that would be needed in a month.

She decided to raise funds at the Englewood Cliffs Upper School, where she is in the seventh grade, and at her Hebrew school at Cong. Gesher Shalom in Fort Lee. She sold kosher cookies ($1.50 for two) and a pink plastic bracelet with the word “Courage” each Wednesday at lunchtime at school during the month of September. Harli has given a talk at school, explaining to her classmates why she’s doing the sale. She says the cookies and bracelets have sold well.

Happily, the cancer of both Harli’s aunt and mother is in remission. Harli and her mother delivered 25 bags, each containing Courage and a letter from Harli, to Englewood Hospital last week. The letter includes this passage:

“Courage provided comfort for both my aunt and mom while they recuperated from their breast cancer surgery. Courage was designed by a nurse practitioner in Atlanta where my aunt was being treated. An Atlanta foundation gave Courage to patients having this type of surgery. My aunt brought Courage to my mom when she was having her surgery at Englewood Hospital; I realized then that Courage became part of our family. . . . Courage can be placed under your arm for comfort. I hope that Courage helps you during the healing process.”

In her spare time, Harli Starr is on the swimming team at the Kaplen JCC in Tenafly, studies dance and piano, and plays the flute in the school band. She says she expects to go on with projects similar to the Courage project – perhaps even joining the JCC’s Teen Philanthropy program in which her older brother participated in this year. She and her mother are also looking into the possibility of continuing the Courage project for breast cancer patients at Englewood Hospital.

“It makes me feel really good that I’m helping people,” she says.

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