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  • Whitney Westbrook

TBP Columbia's First Distribution

On September 20, we packed 100 backpacks - the first 100 TBP backpacks assembled in the state of South Carolina. The first packing event affirmed my idea that there is clear student interest in addressing the issue of homelessness in Columbia. The packing went very smoothly - frankly, I had forgotten just how efficient a good, old-fashioned assembly line can be! It was extremely gratifying to see the peanut butter, socks and deodorant come out of the boxes that have been stored under my bed and become part of fully packed backpacks, ready to be distributed.


For our first distribution, we partnered with MIRCI (Mental Illness Recovery Center, Inc.), a homeless service provider in downtown Columbia. MIRCI had expressed interest in working with TBP Columbia since our first conversation in the beginning of July. When I returned to Columbia in August, I visited MIRCI to see the facility and meet Mac, Jon and Kiki, the people with whom I had been corresponding and who would soon become friends. The summer is no friend to Columbia, and a few people from MIRCI had been conducting weekly “water runs” since May to bring the homeless community water and snacks. In the weeks leading up to the distribution, I visited MIRCI a lot - sometimes to speak with the staff, and sometimes to accompany them on their water runs. I wanted to better understand Columbia through the eyes of those experiencing homelessness and those providing for that community. Likewise, I wanted to build rapport with clients as we work to make TBP Columbia part of this community. From what I am learning, it takes repeated interactions with many clients to earn their trust. I know that it will be a slow but very rewarding process, and I feel very lucky to have started it with MIRCI as a guide. Jon and Kiki are truly a light in so many people’s lives. Jon routinely gets into water fights with clients, and Kiki, having worked at the largest shelter in Columbia prior to taking a job with MIRCI, knows and hugs just about everyone we come into contact with. When we are driving around, the windows of the van stay rolled down. If we kept them rolled up, Jon and Kiki would just keep rolling them down every block to yell hello to different people they know.


On September 23, we arrived at MIRCI to find an already-loaded van and a couple of excited staff members waiting for us. One other member of the TBP Columbia team joined me (given the fact that it was a Wednesday afternoon, student availability was hard to come by). Although we initially planned to do a split street-shelter distribution, there were not many clients actually at MIRCI, so we predicted that the beautiful weather meant that we would find lots of people outside. We left a few backpacks at MIRCI and piled the rest in the van. We drove around to several of the major encampments, stopping at each to give people backpacks, water and snacks. People were extremely grateful, and playing cards seemed especially popular!


I have now started to see some of the same people several times, and I am looking forward to continuing to build relationships with them. Columbia is a unique town with unique needs, so I look forward to building relationships that will inform our future direction. I learn something new each time I speak with an individual experiencing homelessness.


The good news? We still have 50 packed backpacks - and we already plan to partner with MIRCI for another distribution in a couple weeks. I am thrilled by the work of MIRCI, the support of my team in Columbia, and the guidance of TBP, Inc., as I get the chapter in Columbia up and running!


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The Backpack Project, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which packs backpacks with food, clothes, and toiletries and hand-delivers them to the homeless.

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