Sometimes a day starts out like any other — and then something happens that stops you in your tracks. I had one of those days last week. Totally unexpected, and it left me changed. Here’s what happened:
After some meetings, I stopped by my local grocery store to pick up some food for dinner. This is something I’ve done hundreds of times. I’m so familiar with the layout, the people, I can buzz through and get what I need almost without thinking about it. I entered, turned the corner towards the produce department and came face to face with a woman. This woman was clearly out of place in this upscale market — on a hot summer day she was wearing a sweater and a coat, a knit hat, and sandals. Her clothes were dirty, and she was carrying several plastic bags. Our eyes met and I gave her a big smile. She smiled back, and to my surprise she said: “Lissa!” I turned back and she took a step towards me. “You’re Lissa, right?”
I did not recognize her at all. I asked her we knew each other and I never got a clear answer. She talked and talked, about various things, but nothing that helped me to figure out who she was. Although she didn’t say so, I could tell she was homeless. She hadn’t had a shower in a long time, and she acted a bit confused and scattered. It seemed that she needed a friend, and my heart went out to her. I tried to give her some money, but she refused — and after some time I told her I needed to go, but that I would feel better knowing she had some money. I tucked a twenty-dollar bill in her hand and she didn’t seem to notice. After following me through the store for a bit, she was gone.
On the drive home I kept going over the conversation in my head, trying to figure out if I knew this woman. She was about my age, and she could have been a mom at my kids’ school when they were little. She could have gone to my church. She could have been a neighbor at one time — after all, she was in my neighborhood. Although I showed her kindness and respect, I questioned what I could have done differently, how I might have been able to help her.
At my next stop I called Social Services to get some advice, and see if there was anything that they could do to help her. They basically told me that if this woman wanted their help that she would need to call, that there was nothing that they could do unless she reached out to them herself.
So I went home. And sent up a prayer of thanks that I had a home to go to. Whenever I count my blessings, or write down gratitudes, I include my home among the top of my list. Now I felt a new sense of deep compassion for those without a home. I wanted to help but didn’t know how. But I knew that somehow the answer would come. And it did.
The next morning as I was going through my email I followed a link that led me to a video someone posted explaining how he found a way to help the homeless by distributing backpacks. This guy and his friend filled backpacks with basic necessities: toothpaste, shampoo, a towel, socks, some food, and gave them to homeless people in their community. The video showed how much these backpacks were appreciated, and the recipients expressed how much this kindness meant to them.
I did a bit of research online and found that several others have done this same thing. They shared their stories, and ideas of what to put in the backpacks. Now I had my answer – now I had something tangible to do to help this woman, who saw herself as my friend, and for whom I had so much compassion.
I assembled my own list of items and headed out to the Goodwill store. One of the articles I read said that people who are homeless prefer backpacks that are a bit worn over brand new ones because new ones tend to get stolen. I bought several gently used backpacks and loaded up on scarves, hats and hoodies. Nothing that I bought was more than $5. Most items were around $2.
Then I went to the 99 Cent Store. My goal was to get 10 of each item on the list to fill 10 backpacks. This is what I ended up packing in each backpack:
• A bar of soap
• Toothbrush and toothpaste
• Body/hand lotion
• Flashlight with batteries
• Medium sized terrycloth towel
• Protein bar
• Box of raisins
• Jar of peanut butter and plastic spoon
• Bottle of water
• Toilet paper
• Notebook and pen
At the 99 Cent Store I was able to get everything really cheap — and these are full-sized bottles of shampoo and lotion! Then in each backpack I put a warm scarf, hat, hoodie or blanket that I got at the Goodwill. All in all it cost less than $16 per backpack. I put some of the smaller items in a zippered plastic bag. Other items that I would like to put in the backpacks as I find them or get them donated include: a manicure set, gift cards to grocery stores or restaurants like Subway, and bus tokens. These are small and could definitely fit in with everything else.
Basically I sorted everything out and went down an assembly line to fill up the backpacks. From beginning to end the whole process took less than half a day, including the shopping, and I ended up with 10 filled backpacks.
My plan is to keep some backpacks in my car, so that when I see someone who is homeless I can offer them one. I also went online to find out what resources are available to people who are homeless in our area and found a great place that both helps to prevent homelessness, and helps people who are homeless to get back on their feet with jobs and housing. I will be working with them to help distribute the backpacks to those most in need, and to help them in their efforts to keep their pantries stocked.
I have learned a lot from this experience and would like to share this information with you. Rather than giving money to panhandlers, support solutions by giving to organizations that are working to help the homeless on a daily basis. For every person that is visibly homeless, there are many more that are at risk of becoming homeless, or have been homeless at some point throughout the year. Preventing homelessness is cost-effective as well as morally compelling. It costs far less to prevent homelessness than to help a family that has already become homeless. Here are some additional ways we can all help:
• Find a local non-profit organization that serves the homeless and make a donation of money or items such non-perishable foods and hygiene products, or blankets, hats and socks. Bus passes are also appreciated so that people can get to job interviews, healthcare appointments and dinner sites.
• Share your strengths. You can give of your time and talents – organizations can help match your strengths with the needs in your community. There are many places that will welcome you as a volunteer.
• Conduct food drives for local food banks.
• Spread the word. Provide learning opportunities at your workplace or club to help others understand the most effective ways to assist the homeless and those at risk of homelessness, and to dispel misconceptions about homelessness.
We all share a home on this planet. We are all connected, and we’re here to help each other learn and grow. When one of us suffers, it affects each and every one of us in some way. I encourage you to do what you can to help those who are struggling with homelessness in your own area.
Making backpacks is one actionable step we can take. Reaching out to an organization that is already helping the homeless is another. You don’t have to do much. But I think we each have to do something if we really want things to change for the better for all of us.
I made a video that explains more about how to make the backpacks and distribute them, and to find resources in your area. You can see it here: