It All Started with a Christmas Project
In 2016, Kevin Garrison was looking for a Christmas project to do. In the past, he had adopted families to buy gifts for. But that year, his contacts had nothing coming through. He didn’t know what to do. While scrolling through Facebook he noticed a picture of a “blessing bag.” It had socks, snacks, water, toothbrush, toothpaste, a razor, shampoo, soap, lotion and deodorant. So he thought this would be his Christmas project that year. Working at Amtrak at Penn Station, he sees numerous homeless people everyday that could benefit from this.
He posted a request on Facebook asking his friends to donate to fill the blessing bags. Within a couple of days, his apartment started filling up with stuff. He created 200 bags. In the next two weeks, walking the streets around Madison Square Garden, before and after work, he distributed the bags approaching people he thought might need it and asked simply, “Can I give this to you?” That question put them at ease. They loved it. People would sit down, take off their shoes and put the socks on. He saw one woman take the bag, run around the corner, roll up her pants leg and rub lotion on her chapped and dry legs. He walked into a restroom after handing out the bags and saw four men using various products from the bag — shaving, washing their face and brushing their teeth. He was blown away.
One Good Deed Led Down Many Roads
Christmas came and went and Kevin thought, well he did his good deed for the day and all is good. But his friends thought otherwise and asked him how long he was going to keep doing this. He told them as long as they keep giving, he will keep giving. But he assumed that it would be short-lived, things will die down and he will go back to his normal routine. But people just kept on giving. So he created a Facebook Group, Blessing Bag Brigade NJ, so people can see where their stuff was going and he could tell people’s stories. He grew to become friends with many he met on the streets.
Local teachers and scout leaders started to approach Kevin wondering if they could get their students and children’s groups to help put together the blessing bags. In the beginning, he would spend the first two weeks of every month begging for supplies through social media and the balance of the month assembling and distributing the bags. He wanted to extend beyond New York. But is there a need in his own hometown? He started going to soup kitchens and food pantries in Monmouth County and quickly realized there was a real need from Keyport to Bradley Beach. At that point, he was handing out 400 Blessing Bags a month — and that was awesome! Today, they are handing out close to 2,000 per month — in NYC, Newark, Asbury Park, Keansburg, Long Branch and other towns. Today he involves many groups — schools, churches, scout troops, families with children of every age who help assemble the bags.
One day in the middle of winter in 2016, while still working the overnight shift at Amtrak, Kevin learned of a great-grandmother raising her 5 great grandchildren living in Middletown whose house was in need of some repairs. He arrived at the house and the homeowner asked if he could fix one broken window. But he discovered every window was broken, all the furniture was broken, doors did not work properly. So once again, Kevin took to social media, begged for supplies, went live on Facebook asking people to come to the house to help and in 11 days did an extreme home makeover for this woman and her family. They put her and her family up in a hotel for 11 days and redid the whole house – 11 new windows, 5 new doors, new carpeting and hardwood floors, new-to-them furniture, fixed the electric, fixed the plumbing — everything was donated.
In early 2017, Kevin had to form a 501(c)(3) organization since he was taking in all kinds of donations. Back to social media to announce that he was forming Blessing Bag Brigade NJ as a 501(c)(3) and as a result, someone donated the funds to cover the cost to form the organization.
It’s the Community Volunteers
Kevin has about 10 core people he can count on, but there are hundreds in the community that help. He likes to say that it is not really him doing it, but he is in the passenger seat going along with what everyone says. He never says that it is just him, although he may be the face of the organization because he is out there posting on Facebook and running around doing other stuff, but there are so many people involved. This is truly a community effort.
They hold many supply gathering and packing events throughout the year in various locations around the county. Mothers and dads come with their kids. There is no age limits — a 2 year old can come and help stuff the bags. And the coolest thing, he says, is that all the phones are put away. No one is texting. Everyone is working together.
He even has drop off locations all around the county at retail stores, local businesses and eateries — check out the locations here.
I Asked Kevin a few additional questions:
Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met?
A: “The most interesting person to me is my grandfather. He died way too young but he had a profound impact on my life. He was very handy and he loved the hell out of me He worked at New York Life as a Porter and raised eight children on that salary. He used to put his money one facing one way and one facing the other way. One day he got robbed and the police asked him how would he know it was his money. My grandfather told the police that he always kept his money facing in opposite directions. The cop said, ‘You’re right, this is your money. But if you want to press charges, we need the money as evidence.’ My grandfather said let him go, I need the money to take care of my family.”
Q: What advice would you give a crowd of people?
A: “I would say, if you have the opportunity to change the way someone feels for the good, go for it. If that means buying a cup of coffee, holding the door, helping clean their yards, helping them move out of their apartment or whatever. Just some random act of kindness.
My initial thought when I started doing this is, if I can change the way one of those people feel for one moment, then I’ve really done something. Have them get that bag and say, ‘Wow, someone really cares.’ You don’t know what will spark someone.”
Q: Where do you see yourself or Blessing Bag Brigade in 5 or 10 years?
A: “I hope that we can do more, I hope we can get to a place where maybe we have a building. Maybe we counsel folks. The problem or the situation of people being homeless or needy is not easy one. Not everyone is the way they are as is the next guy. There’s so many different aspects to it. And I don’t know if you can help everyone. Ultimately, I would like to open a center.”
Q: What 3 words or phrases come to mind when you think of the word HOME?
A: “Comfort, Peace and Love.”