Backpacks and Blessing Bags

Our Guest Author, Tara Stern, was inspired by the Roadmap Genesis project to do something more for her community. She got inspired by the verse in Genesis 4:9 and Rabbi Sharon Brous’ response to the verse in a segment of the film.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

As Rabbi Sharon Brous said in her video segment of the film, “YES”. Emphatically yes. We are our brother’s keeper! Here’s an example of how we hope many people are inspired to be the agent of social change that they should be in their communities and the world around them.

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I’ve always believed in the importance of helping out, giving back, and teaching my kids that charity is a verb. (It requires action.) And when a volunteer opportunity came up that was convenient and a friend was planning it or it was nearby or whatever, I would absolutely take my kids and go. When nobody I knew was planning anything, I would wish they would, but I would never have stepped up and done it myself. It seemed like too much work, I wasn’t sure if anyone would actually turn up, but mostly I hated to ask people to give/do/spend on something for me. We all have so many obligations in our lives, I didn’t want to be another one for people.

But the first time I sat down and watched Roadmap Genesis, I realized just how OFF that thinking was. Trying to get out and do some good in the world is not about ME. It’s about giving people the opportunity to help out in OUR world. We all live in it, and I think most of us (most of the people I know anyways) realize how lucky we are to be able to have a little extra to give, and to be in the position where we can do just that.

So I decided to organize a “Backpacks for the Homeless” event. I’d been to one before – the idea is that we each bring an old backpack and enough of one thing (say, granola bars or new socks) to for everyone to put into their old backpacks. We lay everything out and let the kids do an assembly line of to fill the packs. Yep, kid friendly – super important. Afterwards, each person takes a pack or two with them and leaves them in their car. As they go about their lives, they can hand them out to people they see that might be able to use some help. (I found people were a little suspicious of me trying to give them the backpacks, not knowing what was really in them, so I was planning to donate all completed packs to a nearby women and children’s shelter.)

I reached out to my friends with short notice before a 3-day weekend, so nervous that no one would show that I made my close friend promise to come before I even sent out the invitation so in the worst case scenario, it wouldn’t be just me and my kids out there. Literally overnight, I ended up getting about 25 people (10 adults and somewhere in the vicinity of 15 kids) to show up, many of whom I’d never even met. We quickly coordinated needed supplies and met at a local park 2 days later.

Because of the overwhelmingly positive response, I decided to add a warm clothing drive to the event, and had several people who weren’t able to make backpacks drop off big bags of shoes, clothes and blankets.

Ultimately, we filled 20 backpacks with food, toiletries, water, etc. that I took to the shelter – and another 20-30 gallon-sized ZipLock bags filled with the leftover supplies. We could each take some to leave in our cars to give out – and the people receiving them can see through the clear bag to exactly what is in there, and seem much more comfortable taking them. The impromptu clothing drive yielded 5-10 garbage bags full of clothing that went directly to the shelter to be handed out as needed.

I took my two young daughters (ages 4 and 7) with me to the shelter when we made our donations. (We had to go twice because my big SUV was packed so full.) I had talked to the coordinator there, and she gave us a tour of the facilities. It was definitely an educational experience for my girls, who have about a zillion toys in their own big bedrooms, to see kids living barracks-style with their parents, 20 people in bunk beds in a room and the luckier ones get to live on the residential side where 2 families share a room not much bigger than a walk-in closet. It sparked some thoughtful conversations about gratitude and giving, and gave them some perspective on just how lucky they are.

Everyone who came out that day found the experience incredibly fulfilling, and a great way to get our kids involved in helping out. Several have asked me when I was planning the next one, and for the first time I find myself on the other side of that equation. I don’t have to sit around anymore wishing someone else would plan something. I get how important it is to get out there and do it myself – and I’m already thinking about the next one.

Rob RyndersGuest Author, Tara Stern

Tara is the wife of David Stern, and an Executive Producer on the film. After being inspired by the Roadmap Genesis project she was inspired to start creating and carrying around “Blessing Bags” with her in her car. Basically a gallon ziplock bag with basic necessities: toothbrush, toothpaste, wet wipes, granola bars, small pad of paper, pen, small bottle of water, etc. When she sees a homeless person, she shows them the bag and asks if they would like one. Since they are transparent, the person can see what is being offered and can accept or decline. She’s found that most accept.