Downtown Angels: College student’s organization helps get homeless back on their feet

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Give a Life Bak Pak volunteers each month to provide first aid and feet washing services for the homeless (Photo courtesy of I Have A Name Project)
Give a Life Bak Pak volunteers each month to provide first aid and feet washing services for the homeless (Photo courtesy of I Have A Name Project)

Vivienne Gellert founded the bak⋅pak organization November 2015. The organization provides feet washing and water services for homeless people, and will provide workshops and backpacks full of supplies beginning in 2017.

“I became a scribe at Maryvale Baptist Emergency Room … and that is when my eyes started to open to a population that I didn’t have much exposure to growing up,” said Gellert, who is now a junior at Arizona State University. “These homeless individuals would come in wearing socks from the last visit to the emergency room, and they’d be shredded down to the last thread, covered in holes, and for most of them that’s their only means of foot protection, so that always caught my eye.”

Gellert said she struggled with the same thing a lot of students struggled with.

“They want to do something, but they don’t know how to do something,” she said.

During her freshman year, Gellert enrolled in a public speaking class, where the final assignment was to write a persuasive speech.

“Our persuasive speech was graded by our peers…I tried to think, what is a topic that would resonate with my classmates? I thought homelessness,” she said.

While walking to class, Gellert said she saw a homeless man standing in front of the Taylor Place convenience store, “I’ve seen him so many times. I thought, I’m going into Starbucks. I’ll buy him a coffee, and I said, ‘Sir, can I get you a coffee?’ and he goes, ‘No, but I could really go for a coke.’

“I went into the market and I get him his coke, but being raised Hungarian, you never get a treat or a coke without eating something healthy,” she said.

Gellert then bought bags of groceries, including sandwiches, yogurts and other food items. When Gellert realized the man didn’t have a bag, she went back to the store to get one. “That’s when I thought, that’s what we can do: provide bags with the essential supplies that I really, strongly believe we should provide.”

According to Outreach Director Savanah Harmanian, bak⋅pak has since partnered with the I Have a Name Project. bak⋅pak’s website shows the group has also partnered with the 501c3 nonprofit Shade.

“We both have this common want and passion to help homeless people,” she said.

bak⋅pak hosts events every last Saturday of the month at Central Arizona Shelter Services, providing feet washing, water and first aid services as part of the Heal Initiative.

“The Heal Initiative is partnering with all these businesses in downtown Phoenix to try and create awareness for this issue,” Gellert said. “We do a different item of focus each month. We give them resource cards. We provide conversation. We make that connection.

“Hopefully at the end of our year of giving, we will be doing a ten-week program. We’re getting to know them, and then hopefully they’ll want to join our program. It will focus on different aspects to help them get back on their feet to help them get a job,” Harmanian said.

For more information, go to www.givealifebakpak.org or email vivigellert@givealifebakpak.org.

Corrections: September 15, 2016:

An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of the organization, and has since been updated.

An earlier version of the story also stated the incorrect date when the organization began, and has been updated to reflect the correct date.

Clarification: September 16, 2016:

An earlier version of this story failed to mention bak⋅pak’s partnership with the nonprofit Shade. It has been updated to show this.

Contact the columnist at Holly.Bernstein@asu.edu.

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