For a person living on the street, a friendly conversation, the offer of spare change, or a fresh meal is the kind of gesture that can lift a homeless person’s spirits. But it doesn’t solve that person’s predicament — or the complex societal problems that lead to homelessness.
Terry sophomore Zack Leitz knows that substance abuse, mental illness, and financial upheaval are the main causes of homelessness, but he has learned that every backstory is different and that generalizations aren’t helpful.
What is helpful is Leitz’s cost-effective effort to prevent health problems that homelessness exacerbates.
It’s called The Backpack Project Inc., and it’s a nonprofit organization that helps ease the burden of homelessness in Athens and Atlanta by preparing and distributing backpacks filled with food, clothing, and toiletries to needy people.
Inspired by a couple who created backpacks for the homeless in Washington, D.C., Leitz expanded upon the idea and, with the help of his parents, the finance and management major created a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity. A year later, the organization has raised several thousand dollars and distributed more than 350 backpacks to the homeless in Athens.
“Every backpack is stocked for $20 or less,” says Leitz, who serves as executive director and whose 10-member staff includes Terry classmates Donya Eghtesadi (marketing), Zach Fram (accounting), Nick Futrell (economics), Miko Ramljak (MIS), and Josh Seiden (economics). The team hand-delivers the backpacks, establishes personal connections when possible, and seeks feedback from recipients.
“We make both a winter and a summer backpack,” says Leitz, “and we stock it with more than 40 items to meet the individual needs of every person who receives one.”
With its first distribution in Atlanta completed in January, the charity’s next goal is expanding its presence in Georgia’s capital. Leitz says his long-term vision for The Backpack Project is for it to remain a student organization led by underclassmen who have the talent and time to make the charity a central priority of their UGA experience.
“What is simple and trivial to most of us — toothbrushes, deodorant, food, and winter clothes, which we can purchase on a large scale for very little money — has tremendous value to people in need.”