A team of determined students known as Bags of Promise (BOP), from Queen’s University and The Royal Military College (RMC), has been working hard since the spring of 2021 towards their first-ever bag donation drive, which will involve donating bags of essential items to youth experiencing houselessness at the Kingston Youth Shelter this coming weekend.
According to United Way of KFL&A, “on any given night, more than 6,000 Canadian youth are homeless. Young people account for one in five of the people living in Canada’s homeless shelters. In 2013, this number was even higher in Kingston at one in three.” Although according to their 2021 Report on Youth Homelessness, the United Way of KFL&A has reported a significant decrease in youth at the emergency shelter and short-term stay housing, youth houselessness is still a significant issue in Kingston and the surrounding area. BOP is a not-for-profit organization that is looking to give support to unhoused youths in need. Founded by Brooke Baker (RMC) and Celina Lovisotto (Queen’s), BOP is backed by a team of seven second-year students. The organization is based on three main pillars: service, education, and advocacy. These pillars are the basis for the team’s goals of providing youth experiencing houselessness with essential supplies in a dignified way, educating kids and teens on the reality of youth houselessness, and advocating for those with lived experience of houselessness.
Confronting the stigma around youth houselessness head on
During an online interview with a few members of the BOP team on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, co-president Celina Lovisotto explained that the idea behind BOP was primarily to “eliminate [the need for youth to carry] belongings around in trash bags, because it’s definitely a dehumanizing feeling, and [replace trash bags] with reusable bags.” Co-president Brooke Baker spoke to her experience of having lived as a houseless youth and the stigma she experienced once coming to Queen’s. “[My past] was something that was really difficult for me to talk to my peers about, especially at Queen’s,” explained Baker, “Celina and I had very different lives growing up. Not only did I not know how to talk to her about it, but I just also don’t think she knew what to say.”
Their friendship flourished as first-year residence floor mates, and Baker and Lovisotto spent the summer of 2021 brainstorming how they could fill reusable bags with essentials such as toothbrushes, hats, mitts, snacks, and hygiene products. “[We want to] eliminate the difficulty that these individuals may face when choosing between ‘Do I have to purchase period products today? Or do I buy lunch?’ We want to close that gap,” said Lovisotto.
BOP receives support from local businesses
The co-presidents then worked to hire a team in the fall, which covers all the logistics of their not-for-profit, including advancements, directorship, finance, and social media; as well as representatives for their three pillars: service, advocacy, and education. “We’ve been very fortunate to have such a strong team,” said Lovisotto, “fortunate to have not just the support of the team, but to have the opportunity to partner with all these different companies.”
In November of 2021, BOP received a $100 gift card donation from Score Pizza to raffle off at their information session. “We weren’t collecting items at the time of our information booth. It was purely about educating Queen’s students on the issue of youth houselessness and establishing our presence… The donation from Score Pizza definitely helped gain traction and increase engagement with other Kingston businesses,” expressed Lovisotto.
Since then, BOP has received donations from more business partners, including toiletries from Lush, hats and mitts from Roots, and restaurant gift cards from Tommy’s and Casa. They have also received donations of water bottles from Kleen Kanteen and masks from Pure Balanxed. These donations will be used to fill the backpacks that have been donated by Kingston students and community members. The goal is to have 50 backpacks filled and ready to donate to the Kingston Youth Shelter by Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022.
Beyond the bag drive
“Something that we’ve been thinking about, more so into the future, is how we can… create a bond with the City of Kingston,” said Lovisotto, “so that we can eliminate this issue of youth homelessness in Kingston.” The team is also working on becoming a registered charity and is looking to expand their initiative beyond Kingston and create chapters in other universities.
“Currently, the advocacy team is working on a mentorship program… we feel that these bags can be great in some ways, and they provide youth with physical supplies, but another aspect is maybe these individuals are lacking support and lacking someone outside of their circle to talk to,” explained Lovisotto. She also hinted towards the team creating education pilot programs in Ottawa schools and advocating on behalf of houseless youth in such programs.
According to the United Way of KFL&A, “The reasons that youth become homeless are different than those of adults, and therefore, the solutions also need to be different in order to meet youths’ needs. Often, youth don’t realize that they are experiencing homelessness. Some youth have told us they have a home, they just can’t go back to it.” Therefore mentorship, in-school or community support, and prevention are key tools in approaching the issue of youth houselessness, those with BOP explained.
Needless to say, this team of ambitious and big-hearted women has big dreams for what ‘Bags of Promise’ can grow into. “We’re hoping to make this a long-term project because, within one year, there’s only really so much that you can do,” Baker acknowledged.
Donations still welcome for Saturday bag donation
The team is still looking for as many donations as they can get to donate to the Kingston Youth Shelter this Saturday, Feb. 5. “We could always use are more backpacks or gently used bags and socks, shampoo, conditioner, [and] non-perishable food items… like granola bars or snacks. And then we’re always looking for gently used hats and mitts,” said Lovisotto. Whatever items don’t find new owners will be donated in future drives, the team explained.
To donate to Bags of Promise or for more information, visit their website.