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Grace-Full Backpacks: Helping people get through a tough time

For the past five years Guelph's Sharon Nezny has collected used backpacks and filled them with essentials such as soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste and distributed them to the needy

It’s like a band aid, it stops the bleeding.

This is what Guelph's Sharon Nezny says about her homelessness initiative, ‘Grace-Full Backpacks.’

“It’s about helping people get through a tough time,” she says.

“The homeless are people and they can be anyone, from anywhere. I wanted to do this to let them now that there are people who care and who want to help.”

Since 2014, Nezny has collected used backpacks and filled them with essentials such as soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste and distributed them to the needy. 

“It all started with a vacation in Boston. My two kids were young then, but they really noticed the homelessness there. They wanted to do something. This is what first inspired me,” Nezny said. 

Since then, her dream of helping the homeless became a reality with donations coming from all over and from people who simply like her, want to help. 

“All the back packs are used and all of the supplies are donated,” Nezny says. “So many people have contributed and in today’s society, everyone has extra stuff.”

In a world that creates enough surplus of all kinds, for Nezny, it’s about re-purposing and redistributing.

And in turn, supporting those who need it. 

“But we’ve always treated the backpacks as a way to help people connect. They are used as vessels for communication, another way to make connections,” she said.

Nezny makes sure to include a notebook, a pen and a stamped envelope in each backpack.

“I always have this vision that a mother might get a letter from her long-lost son. I just wanted to include this so they can reconnect with someone if they want to. They might not have a cellphone or a computer, but they can always send a letter,” Nezny said. 

Her children, now teenagers, have included inspirational sayings in the notebooks. 

“It’s just in their hearts to help,” she says. 

Each backpack also includes a list of helpful resources so those in need know where they can access wraparound supports.

And Nezny’s husband, Denny Culbert, has also joined in his wife’s efforts.

At first, Nezny began distributing knapsacks in Toronto because of the homeless numbers and since then, she has also held drives and distributed backpacks in Guelph also. 

“Homeless is homeless no matter where it is,” Nezny said. “I always try to connect with the community and I feel like there is place for it here in Guelph.”

Nezny will be holding another drive in the fall. 

“I try and make it as easy for people as possible if they want to donate,” Nezny says. 

 She uses social media and posts upcoming drives on her Facebook page for anyone wanting to donate. 

“In Guelph, we did a clothing drive and had about 20 different pickups. People are so eager to help,’ Nezny said. 

“And something I noticed was that many of the households donating, were from low income housing. It was like they were giving back.”

From a group of mothers in Windsor, to an aunt who knits hats, people are eager to help fill backpacks for those who need them. 

But for Nezny, it’s much more than just providing the essentials. 

“Many of these people might be suffering from addiction or mental illness. And we’ve met a lot of people from different countries,” she said.

“But for me, it’s all about the stories they share. It can be shocking, it can be inspiring, but people really want to share. It’s so sad that these stories aren’t being told and there are so many. I love listening to them.”

Nezny and her husband are also involved with another homeless initiative, ‘Shelter Bus’, currently in the Toronto area.

Old buses are retrofitted so that they can be used as temporary mobile homeless shelters, where those in need can find shelter, a hot meal and yes, a pack full of supplies. 

‘Grace-Full Backpacks’ began with one simple idea, one which Nezny hopes to continue.

“It doesn’t take much. Just a willingness to help, she says. “And there’s always people who want to help.”

No matter how big or small, she’s determined to help make a difference for those who are homeless. 

I do it because I’m able to and that’s why I feel I should. I think everyone should no matter how small. It’s heartbreaking to see people stepping over homeless people on the streets. They just don’t care,” Nezny said.

 “And I can’t just step over them. I need to help them.”