BackpackProjectMN Is Incredible. Unstoppable.

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In 2004, Randy Palmer and his officemates decided to do away with their office Secret Santa tradition and put the money toward something that would make a difference. That year, they packed toiletries, notebooks, gift cards, and other items young people experiencing homeless would need into seven backpacks and donated them to StreetWorks. Fifteen years and a StreetWorks referral later, BackpackProjectMN fills and donates 700 packs to YouthLink every year.

“When this project started, I had been following a blog out of Boston that inspired the idea. The woman behind it had experienced homelessness and had been donating backpacks filled with items she knew others in similar situations would need. I asked if I could use her list to bring the project to Minnesota,” Randy says.

“Our mission has always been to come together to help people in our community who are often overlooked. Teens and young people experiencing homelessness are sort of forgotten. We wanted to give them a hand at the beginning of their adult life by getting them items they needed to get through a transitional period—and YouthLink helps us do that,” says Randy.

Jelena, YouthLink’s volunteer and donor relations manager, explains why the partnership is so beneficial to clients: “One of our biggest needs is always the daily items we all use in our lives. Hygiene care, cleaning items, hats and gloves in the winter, sunscreen and bug spray in the summer. To get all of that in one backpack—which they can carry with them—helps our clients deal with their daily needs and challenges.”

Randy and his team fill and donate backpacks twice a year. They work with YouthLink to make sure every item they pack will be useful to the young people.

“BackpackProjectMN is comprised of a large group of members from different walks of life. As a community, they are mindful and aware of the challenges our clients face. We pass along feedback from the young people on what’s most useful, and their team is always attentive to our needs. They always go above and beyond to meet them,” says Jelena.

This is no overstatement. When YouthLink told BackpackProjectMN young people were having trouble with the weight of full-size soaps, shampoos, and conditioners, their team found a local soap maker who could help them solve the problem.

“We worked with Tony from Heaven Scent Soaps to develop a three-in-one organic soap bar that allows us to minimize the weight of the backpacks and eliminate spills without dropping much-needed hygiene items from our list. He created this fantastic product just for us and provides them at a cost we can afford,” says Randy.

Randy explains why it’s so important for BackpackProjectMN to do everything they can to respond to these needs: “We want to give young people a break. We know it’s not a long-term solution, but their day-to-day can be high-stress and we want give them one less thing to worry about. With these backpacks, they know at least this portion of their life is taken care of.”

This dedication is especially meaningful to YouthLink and the young people. Jelena explains, “We aren’t usually able to provide so many things to the young people all at once. It’s a gesture that helps them see we’re here for them. Not just to do the bare minimum, but to help them in a specific and comprehensive way. It makes a big impact. We want young people to trust us and to allow us to help them remove barriers. BackpackProjectMN helps us create that trust. They have been an amazing partner to us. They are incredible. Unstoppable.”

YouthLink always needs help with in-kind donations, from basic needs like soaps and shampoo, to longer-term items like weighted blankets to help with the anxiety of young people moving into housing for the first time. To support YouthLink’s needs, you can visit our Amazon wish list:

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