Homeless Backpacks

How often do you consider whether the homeless person sleeping in an exposed area is an adolescent? Or that it may have been awhile since that homeless adolescent had a decent meal?

That’s where Homeless Backpacks comes in. The nonprofit organization provides weekend food to homeless students. According to Kelly Wilson, Homeless Backpacks chair and founding board member, the program serves more than half a dozen school districts in Washington.

The organization began with a group of women getting together in the early 2000s to discuss what they could do for the homeless. The discussion led to the plan for each person to bring a “survival” item to the next meeting to fill 20 backpacks. The program’s focus evolved to provide food on the weekend for homeless middle school and high school teens.

“Back in 2006 when we started the meal program, the food was put into plastic grocery bags,” recalls Wilson.“It was obvious that there was food in the bags, so we provided each student being served a backpack to put the weekend food bag into. The student would walk into the counselor’s office with an empty backpack and walk out with a bag of food inside.”

When plastic bags were banned in Thurston County, Wilson and her team invested in an alternative bag that is thicker and heavier. “The cost of that bag is covered by bag sponsors who pay to put their logo on the bags,” Wilson explains. “These bags are much thicker, so it is not obvious that it is a bag of food.”

Homeless Backpacks serves 573 students per week at $8 a bag. The organization doesn’t receive government or grant funding. Instead, it relies on schools, churches and businesses. It also hosts two fundraisers each year to raise money and awareness.

“Our goal for Homeless Backpacks has always been to inspire and mentor other communities to produce a similar program,” says Wilson. “We are proud to say that through our mentorship and support, there are now similar programs in Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason and Pierce counties. We hope to reach more communities in the coming years.”

JORDAN MARIE MCCAW
Homeless Backpacks
homelessbackpacks.org

New Owner of Olympic Landscape

Olympic Landscape has been designing, building and servicing outdoor residential and commercial spaces in the South Sound for more than 40 years. As an expert landscape contractor, the company creates beautiful outdoor living spaces, unique gathering spaces and specially-themed gardens for homes and businesses. Now the new owner and CEO, Joe Areyano, plans to continue that legacy. He is also adding new services and products that will carry Olympic forward for at least another 40 years.

“My family started a landscape company in 1980, so I’ve been around the industry for the majority of my life,” says Areyano. “At age 16, I started learning every division of the company, from landscape retaining walls to irrigation.” After about five years, he was promoted to field manager and continued to work his way into greater responsibilities. He’s now a certified landscape professional. This hands-on experience, he says, helps him ensure that customers receive the highest-quality service.

Areyano purchased Olympic Landscape from founder Neil Hedman last fall and has already started expanding. The new owner intends to grow the company into a regional leader expanding service area and the services and products offered. Olympic has added divisions
for synthetic turf, landscape maintenance, snow and ice removal, and small works. It is also planning to take on more projects throughout Western Washington.

The growth of Olympic Landscape is good news for the community as well. The company is on target to increase the number of employees to about 50 by the end of June. Additionally, Olympic donates 10 percent of net profits to local charities and events. St. Francis House, which eases the hardships of those in need in east Pierce County, and Homeless Backpacks, which provides food to children in need for weekends and school breaks, are two that Areyano says the company is particularly proud to support.

JULIE LEYDELMEYER

Olympic Landscape
5620 112thSt E, Puyallup
253.922.7075
olympiclandscape.com

Homeless Backpacks

backpackHere’s how the seed of an idea blossomed into massive results that benefit thousands of students throughout the South Sound.

“A group of friends and I were having dinner, and someone brought up an encounter with a homeless person,” recalls Kelly Wilson, a founding board member and chairwoman of Homeless Backpacks. “Then the conversation turned into ‘What can we do?’”

The answer: Fill backpacks with survival goods to help the homeless. Accompanied by Lt. Chris Ward of the Lacey Police Department and a photographer from The Olympian newspaper, Wilson’s group ventured out to a homeless encampment two days before Thanksgiving. Their story wound up on the paper’s front page the next day.

“The phone started ringing at 6:30 the next morning with people calling to ask how they could help,” Wilson says.

Next, the Housing Authority of Thurston County asked the women to participate in the agency’s annual homeless survey. When the data shook out, the group realized one surprising statistic: More than 600 homeless children live in the Olympia area.

“We knew if we were going to do something,” Wilson emphasizes, “helping those children is what we wanted to do.”

A renewed Homeless Backpacks program came together in 2006, partnered with the local food bank and refocused on providing food for middle- and high-school-age children in the free and reduced lunch program. The organization decided to provide backpacks filled with supplemental week-end food for those students. To receive their supply and re-turn backpacks for refills, students would meet weekly with school counselors.

“It took off like wildfire,” Wilson says. “Last year we served more than 430 students a week.”

Today the program serves more than 600 area students and has inspired similar programs in Ma-son, Lewis and Grays Harbor counties. Besides food, cash donations and sponsorships, the all-volunteer team stages an annual spring “Flapjacks for Backpacks” breakfast and a fall dinner and auction. The organization is also on the “contribute fund drive” list from which many companies and state workers can choose to fund local charities.

“Our commitment is that the kids don’t have to worry about where their food comes from so they can focus on their schoolwork,” Wilson says, “and, ultimately, to end homelessness—because every day they stay in school is another day in the long run that they won’t be homeless.”

To donate, attend the fall dinner and auction, or learn more about the Homeless Backpacks program, visit homelessbackpacks.org.

HOLLY SMITH PETERSON