Mission Memphis Day 22: Thanksgiving Day Project

The Experience

Many people want to give back on Thanksgiving Day and do something to help others. There are many opportunities to volunteer in the community on Thanksgiving, but there are also opportunities to do projects together as a family in your own home. Ultimately, I think we are all looking for a way to be reminded of all that we have while also helping others through difficult situations. With that in mind, my family and I planned a special project for Thanksgiving Day.

Through my volunteer work I have met many people who are homeless and when I think about doing projects to help, I can picture the people I’ve met and I can reflect on their stories. Not everyone has had this opportunity and so homelessness can be a faceless, nameless problem that seems abstract. I wanted to find a way to introduce my family to the homeless people of Memphis so we could all envision what homelessness is like and what we could to do help in some small way. Fortunately, two wonderful organizations produced pictures and videos for this exact purpose.

Focus for the Good is a local organization that takes portraits of the homeless population in Memphis. Their work is beautiful and inspiring. I talked with Bill Piacesi about his work and his goals for the organization. This is what he shared with me:

“The central idea behind Focus for the Good: create fine-art portraits of the poor and homeless and display those images in galleries, libraries and other public spaces.  My hope was when people saw these striking images, they might see how anyone, if photographed in the “right light” could be seen as a work of art.  And that they might see the humanity in the faces of these individuals.  And maybe that they would be inspired by a sense of empathy within them to get involved:  volunteer at a soup kitchen, donate to the Food Bank, etc., etc.  If everybody did a little, it would add up to a lot.”

“I am hopeful that what we are doing may reach people who might not hear the call of the need coming from other, more traditional nonprofit voices.  I hope that we are an avenue that someone might travel to reach the point of empathy and get involved.  All through the power of photography.”

With that in mind, I’d like to share some of their work with you.

Take a minute to look at Jerry. Do he look homeless to you? What do you think his story would be?

Jerry. Image credit: Focus for the Good

This lady is named Pat. Does she fit your image of homelessness?

Pat. Image credit: Focus for the Good

And this is Tarvis. What is his life like?

Tarvis. Image credit: Focus for the Good

What I love about Focus for the Good is that they give a face to homelessness. Typically homeless people are treated as second class citizens and many feel invisible at best.  Through this work we have a chance to see them as individuals, rather than homeless people.

What makes this project even more special is that Focus for the Good and Baker Donelson teamed up to produce videos of Jerry, Pat and Tarvis. You have an opportunity to glimpse into someone else’s life and learn about their hardships.

Listen to Jerry’s story

Listen to Pat’s story

Listen to Tarvis’s story

Maybe you found some parts sad or shocking. I hope you found something that resonated with you and challenged how you envision homelessness. I hope you feel inspired to help.

After looking at these portraits and listening to these videos, my family and I decided to make gift bags for the homeless. We talked about what items to include and what might be most useful. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving we collected toothbrushes, chapstick, tissues, socks, hand warmers, raisins (and other health snacks like applesauce), bandaids, and soap.

Supplies for gift bags

My dad divided up the toothbrushes. I’m surprised he used scissors instead of power tools.

Dad and my sister Beth

My section of the assembly line

My mom and my brother Scott

After a short while, the five of us had quickly assembled 12 gift bags to distribute to the homeless of Memphis.

Petschonek family and completed gift bags

The final product

I’ll keep some in my car to hand out and the rest will be donated to one of the many wonderful organizations in Memphis that serves the homeless.

I loved this project for many reasons. First of all, it was meaningful. Looking at the pictures and watching the videos gave us a better sense of who would would be helping and it reminded us to be thankful for our warm home and our family. Second, it was simple, but productive. Everyone could contribute by selecting the items and filling the bags. This would be a great project for any age and any size group. Third, although we did this project on Thanksgiving Day, it will benefit 12 people on one of the other days of the year when they feel forgotten.

I hope this will become a tradition for my family and for yours.

How to Help

Build your own gift bags (sometimes called blessings bags) 

You can build your own gift bags with anything you like. We used gallon sized bags but quart sized bags are very common for this project as well. Here are some ideas of items to include:

  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash
  • Soap
  • Shampoo
  • Hand lotion
  • Gum
  • Healthy snacks (individual servings of peanut butter, applesauce, dried fruit, granola bars, tuna fish and crackers along with disposable utensils)
  • A list of places (addresses and phone numbers) that provide services for the homeless
  • Socks, gloves, hats
  • Gift cards for fast food restaurants and public transit
  • Bottled water
  • Razor and shaving cream
  • Chapstick
  • Tissues
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Inspirational message or helpful information

It’s generally best not to include cash or gift cards to gas stations. Many people use these items responsibly, but some struggle with substance abuse and will use the funds to feed their addiction rather than for food or shelter. When planning healthy snacks, consider that many of the homeless are missing teeth and cannot easily eat hard foods like peanuts. Fruit cocktail, applesauce and soft fruit bars are more accessible for everyone.

Support Focus for the Good:

From Bill: “I feel like the last 27 years of my photography training have all been for what I am doing now.  I have met so many wonderful people working for the greater good than I ever imagined I would and that gives me hope.”

Please consider donating to Focus for the Good or hiring their incredible photography services for your next event.

Facebook (most current work – updated frequently)

Website: http://www.focusforthegood.org/

Make a donation.

Very special thank you to:

  • Bill Piacesi and the Focus for the Good team as well as
  • Beth Halldorson and Liz McKee of Baker Donelson

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

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3 Responses to Mission Memphis Day 22: Thanksgiving Day Project

  1. Pingback: Mission Memphis Day 30: Hospitality Hub | Confessions of a Volunteer

  2. Scott R says:

    Thank you for sharing this great idea. I am inspired to make up these Blessing Packets for this holiday season and throughout 2017. I use to work as a mental health peer support specialist for a non-profit organization in AZ. All of our clients were low income folk with several that found themselves homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. I know from first hand experience that receiving items like these are very appreciated. We always kept a stock of travel size toiletries, clothing, and shoes on hand to provide to the people we served. It is also important to stop and have a conversation and show them that they are not invisible. I have learned that many have had interesting life stories. I had gone back to a corporate job and lost sight of this. Thank you for reminding me to reach out and help people in our community living through tough situations.

    • Hi, Scott. Thank you for the very kind words. I’m glad the project resonated with you. If you decide to do it, we’d love to share your story! Please let us know if you have a story or pictures to share. You can reach us at sarah at volunteerodyssey dot com. Thank you!

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