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Hometown Hero Kelly Wilson brings help with backpacks

SPONSORED — It’s amazing how much love you can fit in a backpack.

At least that’s Kelly Wilson’s experience. The Thurston County resident, who’s a mother to three children herself, has been feeding the community’s hungry youths for more than a decade. Her organization, Homeless Backpacks, provides weekend food for children and teens in Thurston, Mason and Grays Harbor counties who are either staying in shelters with family, bouncing between friends’ houses each day or living on the streets.

Each bag, which students receive from a school counselor’s or nurse’s office each weekend, includes ravioli, ramen noodles, chili, fruit cups, granola bars, oatmeal, juice boxes, chocolate milk and assorted snacks. For the sake of discretion, these bags are designed to fit into a student’s backpack.

For recipients of the bags, the food is invaluable.

“The struggles of homeless students are many and great,” Wilson said. “Elementary students won’t hesitate to let folks know that they are hungry or that they need something. Middle school and high school students do their best to not let anyone know that they are homeless or need assistance. All kids contend with the pressure of wearing the right shoes, clothes or hairstyle. Can you imagine all of that social pressure and not having a home, a shower or clean clothes?”

Wilson was quick to imagine it more than a decade ago. The idea for Homeless Backpacks was born over dinner with friends. Discussing homeless people they encountered with signs on the side of the road, Wilson, who was recently recognized as one of WSECU’s Hometown Heroes, decided she needed to take action.

With the help of friends and associates, she delivered food-filled backpacks over a two-day period around Thanksgiving in 2004. For safety, the group asked a Lacey police officer to accompany them, who also called a local reporter to tag along. The following day, Homeless Backpacks was famous in the community.

“My phone started ringing before I was even out of bed,” Wilson recalled. “They had published photos, a story and my home phone number! People are so generous and especially around the holidays. Everyone wanted to know what they could do to help. We didn’t really plan to do this again so I just took their contact info and let them know that if we did go out again, we would let them know.”

Wilson’s plans soon changed dramatically. In working with the Housing Authority of Thurston County, Wilson was able to see firsthand data collected about the community’s homeless population. The information was eye-opening, to say the least.

“The thing that jumped out at us was the number of children who were homeless in Thurston County,” Wilson said. “We had never considered that. To us, a homeless person is the man on the street corner with the sign. But at that time the average age of the homeless person was 9 years old!”

Today, Wilson and her team at Homeless Backpacks work with an impressive number of sponsors and supporters to continually feed hungry children in the community. Often, these children benefit from breakfast and lunch programs at school but are essentially on their own each weekend. Today, the organization is providing food to 507 students each weekend.

For Wilson, the food bags are all about love.

“We were a group of moms, aunts, grandmas, sisters and women who love children,” she said. “We knew that if we were going to take on something in the arena of homelessness, that was where we wanted to jump in.”

For more information on Homeless Backpacks, please visit homelessbackpacks.org.

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