It began with a Facebook post and a text message.
A woman had taken to filling backpacks with daily essentials and would leave them in her car. When she happened upon someone in need panhandling or sleeping on the street, she would give them a backpack. There may be a blanket, perhaps some lip balm, whatever. Just something to let the other person know that someone was thinking of them and wanted to help.
My daughter thought this was a good idea, and wondered about ways to do this in bulk. She took the time to build a shopping list: doing research to find where she could get certain items she could distribute and for how much for how many. After compiling her list and deciding she had a workable idea, the text came. She wanted to demonstrate good citizenship to her younger brother and to make a difference in the world.
How to do this? The list she had put together, a relatively bargain priced list at that, still priced the project at about $25 per backpack (including the pack) or about $600. Then the issue of distribution: how to distribute the packs? After all, it’s not the safest thing in the world to approach random people on the street and offer things.
This is where some things clicked together. The O’Connell Valor Fund – one of the subjects of the Morrisseyweb 28 Days of Inspiration – has a ready made network of entities seeking just this kind of support for needy and homeless veterans. By leveraging the OVF network, we would have a prescreened means by which we could distribute the packs, meaning no potentially unsafe encounters, and a disadvantaged group to support: the Veterans community.
According to the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (or HUD) estimates 39,471 veterans are homeless on any given night and the Veterans Administration estimates veterans comprise about 11% of the homeless population. Their top priority for homeless vets? Secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol.
Concurrent with the coordination work with the OVF, we began a fundraising campaign to raise money to help offset the cost of building these backpacks: it was clear that the price tag was going to be a little more than we could pull off in short order. Before the fundraiser was 8 hours old, we had raised enough to know that we could pull this off and began ordering the packs and buying supplies.
On November 30 the idea was hatched. On December 1 the connection to the OVF had been set in motion to identify the appropriate place(s) to deliver the packs and the fundraising page had gone up, by December 6 most of the supplies had been purchased and the packs had arrived and on the evening of December 9, we set about packing the 24 packs with goods. And on December 10, we arrived at the Liberty House door to deliver them.
We had raised far more than our initial goal, and that allowed us some flexibility with the contents. To our original list, we added higher quality blankets (this was the big plus!), wash cloths, candy, tooth brush holders, handwritten notes and made 4-female bags with feminine hygiene products: Women comprise 11% of the homeless veteran population, although oftentimes their particular needs go overlooked.
Chic 2 Chic Consignments of Foxborough, MA donated brand new hats, gloves and scarves to each backpack.
The average value of each pack grew from an estimated $25 each, to easily more than $50 with our additional supplies and Chic 2 Chic’s generous donations.
The OVF referred our donation to a small Veterans organization called Liberty House, of Manchester NH. They do terrific work with the homeless Veteran population of Manchester, but more than that they work with the community at large. What’s more is that they do this in the context of drug and alcohol free housing – just what the Coalition of Homeless Veterans says is the top concern. They have refused federal funding – and the requisite regulations – because doing so would compromise their mission and purpose: they would have been required to allow drug and alcohol use if a resident came in using.
In the time we were there, several homeless folks came to their door – knowing that if it can be avoided, no one gets turned away. This was exactly the partner we were looking for – we didn’t want to turn anyone away. And these packs were exactly what was needed: they can’t give everyone a place to stay, but they can try to help everyone. There wasn’t anything in our packs that they program didn’t already have – we had perhaps nicer and new supplies, maybe, but the program had toothbrushes, and toothpaste, and spare clothes. What they didn’t have was the packs, already made, that they could offer to others in need.
In addition, we were able to write a $300 check to the O’Connell Valor Fund to help financially support other Veterans in need – not everyone in need is homeless, and not everyone needs a backpack of supplies.
We took some time with Keith Howard, the Executive Director of Liberty House when we dropped off the packs. He was genuinely touched that these two kids had conceived and built the program themselves. “How did you come up with this idea,” he asked. “I saw a post on Facebook” came the answer. Keith was not satisfied, “How many others saw that post and while they thought it was interesting did nothing?” In that moment of having her modesty rebuffed, it became clear just how important this project was. They did something where others did not, and in so doing they affected the change they wanted to see in the world, AND encouraged others to do so as well.
It warms my heart, this holiday season, to know my kids have been raised to be good, caring people. It warms my heart that so many people thought enough of their idea to help fund it – it never would have become as awesome as quickly without the support from our community. It warms my heart that people I’ve known better than 30 years thought enough of the idea to join the effort to see it to fruition. And more than anything it warms my heart that there are 24 people who are likely to be in much better shape than they may have been otherwise. In short, the world is just a little better because of my kids.