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