While millions of people sat around their TV sets to watch the Super Bowl Sunday night, a group of students from Westwind Preparatory Academy, located at 2045 West Northern Avenue, were out feeding the homeless in downtown Phoenix.
Every Sunday at 5 p.m. a group of students, teachers and administrators gathers at Margaret T. Hance Park, takes blue plastic buckets filled with bagged meals and splits into groups. Each walks from McDowell Road to Jefferson Street passing out meals to the homeless.
Justin Owens, a high school senior and basketball player at Westwind Preparatory Academy, who founded this service project, moved to Phoenix from Baltimore this past summer to live with his sister. The move was prompted by the encouragement of two family friends whom Owens refers to as his big brothers, Tim and Emmanuel Hightower.
“Back home people were always telling me what I couldn’t do, to look at reality,” Owens said. Now in Phoenix, he is taking his “big brothers’” advice.
Tim Hightower, former running back for the Arizona Cardinals who currently plays for the Washington Redskins, and Emmanuel Hightower regularly told him he could do anything if he worked hard and put all of his heart in it, Owens said.
“I wanted to help those less fortunate than myself and those in need,” Owens said.
That’s when he approached his school’s guidance counselor, Heather Campbell, a Phoenician and 2006 ASU graduate, to see if she could help.
“After several meetings, I saw (Owens’) passion and the need for urgency in a project,” Campbell said.
Together they began to talk through what the city of Phoenix needs and decided to create a project to help feed the homeless in the downtown community.
“I am a big believer in doing what you say” Campbell said. “If you are passionate about something, go do it.”
Many of the volunteers did not have much experience in this particular kind of work in the downtown Phoenix area.
“I was born and raised in Phoenix and in my twenty-seven years never have I been involved in something like this,” Campbell said. “I was taught that going into downtown Phoenix at night wasn’t something you did.”
Because they are based on donations, the meals are different each week. This week the group had sandwiches, chips, carrots, cookies and bottled water. Most of the donations come from friends, family and staff members at the school.
“We want everyone to come out and help or donate supplies, which can be sent or dropped off at the school” Campbell said.
As the groups walked the streets and passed out the meals, smiles were on the faces of both parties. One homeless woman remembered Owens from previous weeks and greeted him with a big hello.
She expressed gratitude and said she gives some of her extra food to the other people she sees on the street. Many of the homeless people are friendly and grateful like this woman, Owens said.
Janaria Calhoun and Kasey Winter were some of the students helping with the project. Calhoun, a junior at Westwind Preparatory School and a friend of Owens, was asked to volunteer and has been helping since the beginning of the outreach four weeks ago. Winter, a friend of Calhoun, is a senior at Boulder Creek High School in Anthem, which is about 35 miles away and came specifically to help with the project.
“It feels really good,” Calhoun said. “Many people don’t know how to act when we hand them a meal, but as it goes on more people say how appreciative they are and are really thankful.”
In the future, Owens hopes to expand this project to provide a hot meal once a week, as well as supply everyday needs like blankets and personal care items. In addition to his recent program for the homeless, Owens also created a movement called Youth Fighting Against Cancer, in honor of his friend who passed away two weeks ago from bone cancer.
“My family is really proud of me. Many of them have been in the same situation as homeless people here,” Owens said. “I want to be a difference in the world, not just the community.”
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