Our Bags for the Homeless Story
Volunteering, charity, and helping our community is really important to me, and it is a goal of mine to encourage my children to have these same values.
Always on Pinterest, I of course noticed the Blessing Bags posts circulating. I always thought it was a great idea, but then would keep scrolling.
Last Christmas, my friend Rebecca from Spoonfed Nomore told me she received $75 for Christmas to put towards a charity of her choice and asked me who I would donate to. I said, "There's this 'Blessing Bags' thing I keep seeing online, I've been wanting to do..." and she said, "Let's do it."
With my birthday coming up, I thought it would be a great idea to get my family involved too. I told them for my birthday that year, I didn't want gifts or cake, and to instead spend the money on 20 small items to put into 20 toiletry bags I could hand out to the homeless for my birthday.
As a mom, I want to teach my children the importance of helping each other and the less fortunate, and this is a simple way to get them involved. My daughter loves putting together a gift bag like this for someone.
A lot of people had given me money to go get what we needed and I was able to fill 20 Ziplock bags. I get the kids to help sort and pack the bags. Sometimes our daughter will put a drawing or note inside too.
Montreal Homeless Support Group
How we found the Montreal Homeless Support Group was pretty serendipitous. We (My husband Bob, our eldest, our friend Rebecca and I) set out towards downtown Montreal on a tip from one of Rebecca's friends who suggested visiting some of the parks near Montreal's popular shelters. We drove around for a while not noticing many people outside - it was a cold January day after all.
Driving in circles, Bob was about to give up when I said, "Let's go down this way, I see a park just up ahead." When we approached, I noticed some tables set up with lots of people at the other side of the park and yelled "There!" and pointed. When we got closer, we saw they were serving food. I asked if they minded if we handed out the toiletry bags with them. Anne, the person who runs the group, asked if I had heard about them on Facebook, and I said, "I didn't, we were driving around looking to where we could hand out our toiletry bags, and we just happened to have spotted you." That's when she told us that they usually meet on Saturday evenings at the same park (Parc Emilie-Gamelin) but couldn't make it, so they came on a Sunday afternoon instead. And we just happened to have run into them.
We returned to the park this summer on our own during Formula 1 weekend. It was the perfect time to go, no other groups were there, probably because race weekend in Montreal can be really busy. It just so happened that it was clear sailing from our place - not an once of traffic. One person said to me "I didn't think I was going to get to eat today."
We went with 24 toiletry bags, and 30 lunch bags with sandwiches, cookies and vegetables that day. Everything was gone in about 20 minutes.
How to Collect Toiletries for the Homeless
We got the word out on my own Facebook that I was collecting travel sized and sample sized items for this purpose, and included a list. Coworkers were ready to help out and work together: sharing the post saying they will collect items, and going out and purchasing what we needed.
After the word got out, my family and friends know to save the items listed below for me. The bags in the photo below were collected from my aunt's travels in hotel rooms and from samples she receives.
Do you often get samples in the mail? Maybe when you make a purchase at a store? Sometimes you can find small one-use samples in magazines!
What to Collect
This is the top item requested at shelter, and the least item donated. I always include socks in our Ziplock bags. Check out the Toe2Toe organization in Montreal, created by Chris Costello who came to the realization that the majority of homeless people that were coming into the ER while he was on duty was to be treated for foot-related problems. Walking outside, often in harsh weather conditions, is the norm for the homeless, so having new socks to change into is a necessity. I always include new socks - a big bulk bag from Walmart or Costco is not very expensive, but it can help out so many people.
We like to add a granola bar but you can add any lunch box snacks that they can keep to snack on later: cookies, fruit cups, crackers, etc. We have also added a water bottle or juice box to each bag. I also like to add gum or mints.
One tip I have seen online was to add a $5 gift card to a common fast food restaurant. This would allow not only a warm beverage or snack, but a place to use the rest room or get shelter from the cold or rain, since you have to be a paying customer.
Dental Hygiene Products
Dental hygiene is an important part of maintaining good health. These products are on the cheaper side, but it all adds up: toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash, floss, My sister and law is into extreme couponing, and has scored us free toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste.
For Rebecca, it was important to add dental floss to our bags - as she puts it: "there's nothing more luxurious than a piece of dental floss." and I have to agree. It's the little things. It's the little things we take advantage of. Plus, it's what all dentists ask their patients: "are you flossing every day?" Does your dentist give you samples after your cleaning or check up? Save them!
As mentioned above, if you travel often, save the items from your bathroom where hotel chains often leave out small travel-sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body lotion and shower gel or small bars of soap. Even shower caps - they can protect someone in the rain or snow. Especially if you're someone who likes to bring your usual products with you when you travel, these little items can go to someone who needs it.
Side note: Since these bottles will be used once, or carried around with them, I always ask for and buy travel-sized items.
Small Toiletry Tools
Combs, nail files, disposable razors... we have also collected small toiletry bags (pictured below) so that they will have something to carry their items in.
First Aid Items
Bandages, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, lip balm, wipes, tissues, antibacterial cream...
Where to Donate
If you're not in the Montreal area, try calling a local shelter to inquire if there is a meeting point for the homeless if there is no space left in the shelters. You may even be able to donate these items directly to the shelter.
A great tip I saw online is to always have a few in your car in case you happen to cross paths with someone who can really use it. We make sure to pack a couple of bags whenever we do go downtown.
Do you have any ideas for what else can be added to the toiletry bags? Leave me a comment below! If you're curious to know what the park is like, or would like to see more about the toiletry bags we make, head on over to my Instagram story highlights under "Giving Back" for some videos.
Melissa is a mom, wife, and early childhood educator who blogs about her journey looking for new experiences for family time.