Valerie Castile stood in front of dozens of elementary students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet in St. Paul on Friday and asked how many of them remembered "Mr. Phil."

Every one of them raised their hands.

The mother of Philando Castile was at the school on behalf of family and friends to recognize the continuing success of a fundraising project to pay off school lunch debts.

The school lunch project has raised $72,000 — $10,000 of which went to J.J. Hill Montessori to eliminate the students' entire lunch debt. The rest of the donations will significantly reduce other student lunch debts across the St. Paul district.

The donation took place in the lunchroom where students got to know Castile, who had a passion for making sure the students had healthy meals. Valerie Castile told the kids he never missed a day of work.

"You met him and realized that he was such a nice person," she said. "This project means the world to me."

The fundraiser, dubbed "Philando Feeds the Children" on, was started by Metropolitan State University psychology Prof. Pamela Fergus. The students in her diversity and ethics class took it on as a project.

Fergus set a goal of $5,000. Valerie Castile pledged to match that initial $5,000. Within the first two weeks they raised $50,000.

Castile, who was fatally shot by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop in 2016, had been a nutrition supervisor at J.J. Hill.

The officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was charged with second-degree manslaughter and firearms violations. A Ramsey County jury acquitted Yanez of all charges and he later resigned from the force.

Valerie Castile wore a jacket with patches of things her son loved. Stitched on the back are the words "Long Live The King." Her son was known to some as King Philando.

Many kids came up and hugged her during the lunch hour when the check was presented to the school. She spoke briefly to the group, saying the community had to work together to make things better.

Some 70 percent of St. Paul students qualify for free lunches. But many parents aren't aware of the program, struggle with the application or end up earning a bit too much to qualify and still have difficulty paying for lunches.

Typically about 2,000 students end up owing money for lunch at the end of the school year,

Fergus told the students she would keep raising money "so you can always get a good lunch."

Castile said she has received so much feedback about the project that she may try to involve other school districts nationwide.

"No child should go hungry," she said. "And this project helps keep my son alive."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465