Athens, GA,
04:00 AM

Nonprofit helps the homeless with support from Neighborhood Assist.

Breaking Barriers with Backpacks

New to a college campus and excitedly learning the surroundings, University of Georgia student Zack Leitz couldn’t help but notice something that didn’t quite fit among the lush green campus setting. He saw handmade signs asking for money. He noticed hungry eyes hopefully searching passersby. He noticed piles of belongings on the street.

The cities of Athens and Atlanta have a noticeable homelessness issue, and Zack knew he needed to do something about it. As a result, The Backpack Project was born, and quickly morphed from a weekend project to fill and distribute 20 backpacks to a nonprofit that has distributed 3,200 backpacks to the homeless since 2015.

Nick Futrell, executive director of The Backpack Project, was recruited to the nonprofit by Zack his freshman year.

“In high school, I did work with Blessings in a Backpack that helped feed children. That laid the groundwork for me giving back to the community and engaging in a philanthropic way,” Nick says. “Moving to college, I knew I wanted to get involved in the community, but homelessness wasn’t something I knew a lot about. When I moved to Athens, I noticed it was a huge problem, and I couldn’t sit idly by.”

The nonprofit doesn’t just fill backpacks and distribute them. The volunteers take time to talk with their clients, the homeless. In fact, creating relationships is part of The Backpack Project’s values. Those involved have found that a “simple 10-minute conversation can dispel a lifetime of assumptions about homelessness and the people who experience it,” according to their website.

Filled with food, toiletries and clothing, the backpacks are hand distributed throughout Athens and Atlanta and, thanks to a State Farm Neighborhood Assist® grant, Augusta, Ga. The $25,000 grant allowed The Backpack Project to expand, as well as accelerate the nonprofit’s timeline for manufacturing its own backpacks.

“We were able to begin manufacturing our own backpacks for our clients. That manufacturing costs a lot of money, and that grant laid the groundwork for it,” says Nick.

Nick says manufacturing backpacks allows them to specifically design them to help the homeless as much as possible. The backpacks have added cushioning to allow clients to use it as a seat or pillow, reinforced straps to ensure longevity and waterproof material.

Nick says the nonprofit aims to distribute 3,000 backpacks in the 2018-2019 school year. Combined with the amount the program has distributed in its first three years, this upcoming year will almost double their distribution rates.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the Neighborhood Assist grant,” Nick says.

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