About two dozen volunteers spent the weekend making preparations for Project Homeless Connect — filling more than 300 backpacks with a variety of supplies and hundreds of tote bags full of shelf-stable food.
The backpack stuffing was done at Love, INC. on Kalifornsky Beach Road in two shifts. Volunteer coordinator Kathy Gensel said Friday that the first shift worked so quickly that a second shift was almost not needed.
“We had to send the morning group home because they almost finished all the work,” Gensel said. “We had to leave something for the afternoon group to do!”
First, the backpacks were filled with brochures and fliers from several organizations that would normally have booths set up at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex for the event. COVID-19 eliminated the potential for Project Homeless Connect’s traditional in-person, one-stop-shop format this year, so the organizers stuffed as much information as possible on housing, education, substance misuse treatment, mental health issues, veterans’ services and more into the backpacks that will be distributed over the next two weeks.
The backpacks were filled with hand and foot warmers, first aid kits donated by Hilcorp, emergency blankets, NarCan kits donated by Project Hope, and toiletry bags.
While distributing the backpacks next week, volunteers will have additional materials on hand — towels, “quit kits” donated by the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, mess kits donated by the Kenai Peninsula Reentry Coalition, survival straws, pet food, animal harnesses, diapers, parental magazines and more — that people can request. A list of available materials will be at each staging point throughout the week. There will also be hats, gloves, mittens and other donated clothing items that people will be free to grab.
Gensel said that 75 of the backpacks were sent to Homer and 30 were sent to Seward, where there are separate Project Homeless Connect events planned. That left about 200 for the central peninsula, plus any that were left over from the previous year. Gensel said that they would keep going until they ran out of backpacks or supplies, whichever came first.
The next day, some of the same volunteers were at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank filling blue and orange tote bags donated by PCHS with a variety of shelf-stable food. The food bank volunteers were arranged like an assembly line, efficiently placing a few items each in the bag before sending it down the line. Frank Alioto, who is the chaplain at Central Peninsula Hospital and was volunteering on Saturday, said that fellow volunteer and Fine Thyme Cafe owner Bobbi Stelljes had the idea for the assembly line.
“I like to make things easy,” Stelljes said Saturday.
The bags contained lots of canned foods — all with pop-tops so no additional hardware is needed to open them — such as oatmeal, instant noodles, sleeves of crackers and resealable juice pouches. The bags are meant to last someone for about a week. One hundred of the bags were delivered to Homer, while about 600 are available for the central peninsula. The food bags will be distributed along with the backpacks starting on Jan. 27.
Below is the schedule for this year’s Project Homeless Connect:
Jan. 27: LeeShore Center (for domestic violence victims) — ALL DAY
Jan. 27: Love, INC. — ALL DAY
Jan. 27: Soldotna United Methodist Church — 11 a.m. until supplies are gone.
Jan. 28: Nikiski North Start United Methodist Church — 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Jan. 29: Kenai Peninsula Food Bank — 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Feb. 1: Ninilchik Senior Center — 2 p.m. until supplies are gone.
Feb. 1: Kenai United Methodist Church — 12 p.m. until supplies are gone.
Feb. 2: Sterling Senior Center — 11 a.m. until supplies are gone.