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At 14, Kati Hilario looked somehow dwarfed amid the oversized stainless steel appliances and cookware in the spacious hotel kitchen she borrowed Tuesday to make Thanksgiving pumpkin pies.

Her bright T-shirt, running shoes and polka-dot apron seemed out of place in the kind of setting where traditional culinary attire would be expected.

But Hilario was on a mission, her outsized ambition to make a dent in world hunger forcing her slightly beyond her comfort zone as a suburban high school student.

Kati had 75 pies to bake, all ordered ahead and expected in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

Now in her third year of making the traditional holiday desserts to raise funds for some of the tens of thousands served each year by the Redwood Empire Food Bank, she knows how satisfying it's going to feel to turn over the money she has collected to provide food for those in need.

Heck, she's already mulling ideas for boosting her output and donations next year.

"It's so much fun, because just handing over the check, you can see his face, just so happy," she said of her food bank contact, Billy Bartz. "... and seeing that I'm actually making a change and they can buy so much more food that way."

The Maria Carrillo High School freshman hopes to contribute about $1,100 this year to the regional food bank, though she still has to add up all her expenses and total donation amounts.

In addition to the $15 she receives for each pie, some folks just donate directly to the cause. Last year she gave $945 to the food bank after baking 52 pies. The first year she made 16 pies and donated $362.

"It's so rare that young people feel empowered to step up and make a difference," said Bartz, food drive and events coordinator for the food bank. "And what she's doing is really making a difference.

"Nine-hundred forty-five dollars isn't someone saving their allowance. This is connecting others to the mission, spreading the word that hunger is a reality in our community and together we can do something about it," Bartz said.

Kati said her own awakening came when she was in seventh grade at Rincon Valley Middle School through the confluence of family influences, current events and class curriculum.

Described by her father, contractor Ed Hilario, as a girl "possessing a big, adult view of the world and ... very empathetic, very responsible," she'd been aware of the epic disasters in the world in recent years — Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan — and the widespread devastation they provoked.

But that year, she studied the Black Death and ensuing economic upheaval in history class and was told to connect it to the modern day, reinforcing her understanding of those events.

Closer to home, she was exposed to food insecurity in her own town through the volunteer work of her grandparents, particularly grandfather Frank Gironimi, who over more than a decade has helped with weekly food distribution for the needy through Holy Spirit Catholic Church and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Some of the food comes from the Redwood Empire Food Bank, and Gironimi helped connect Kati with Bartz, his contact, after she decided she was ready to help.

"Her parents, of course, let her know that she's one of the fortunate ones — that there are others that are not as fortunate, others that sometimes don't know where their next meal is coming from," Frank Gironimi said. "So along the way, she started asking questions and, of course, her grandmother, my wife, started talking about what we do to help the needy."

Kati said she'd always dreamed of changing the world, but it wasn't until middle school she realized she didn't have to wait until she was an adult.

"It just sort of clicked in my mind that I should start doing stuff about it," she said. "My grandparents have been pretty big volunteers. It kind of inspires me what my grandfather does. It kind of inspired me to say, &‘Hey maybe I should help out, too.'"

Kati's mother, Lisa Ann Hilario, an attorney, remembers her daughter coming home one day and saying, "I have to do something. People are dying."

Kati put together some statistics on hunger in Sonoma County, where one in six are affected, Bartz said.

As the holidays loomed, Kati reflected on the pumpkin pies she and her brother, Robby, had made the previous two or three years for the family's Thanksgiving feast and wondered if they might help.

But Bartz said the food bank could only accept commercially produced, sealed foods, so Kati decided to sell them as a fundraiser.

One October morning, her parents woke up and found a draft of her flier and order form on her mother's computer.

"It still leaves me with my jaw hanging on the floor somewhere because of how this young kid figured this out," Ed Hilario said.

Most of the 16 pies she made that first year were sold to colleagues and work contacts at her mother's law office. Each year since she's raised her goal, and the orders have continue to increase through word of mouth, so much so that a family friend, Ken Murakami, general manager at the Fountaingrove Inn, arranged for her to borrow the banquet kitchen during a time it was not being used.

Surrounded by stacks of canned pumpkin, evaporated milk and a 10-pound bag of sugar, Kati set to work Tuesday, mixing together ingredients for her test pies in hopes she could eventually bake 20 or more at a time in the huge commercial ovens.

Her mom helped, removing frozen pie crusts, shifting bowls and utensils around as the blending of dry and wet ingredients got underway.

"I'm just really proud of her," her mother said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.