Above: Zack Leitz (center) and other student volunteers distribute backpacks to the homeless in Athens.

By Rebecca McCarthy

Growing up in Dunwoody, Zack Leitz didn’t see many homeless people unless his family and he headed to downtown Atlanta to take in a Braves game. But when he came to Athens to attend the University of Georgia two years ago, he found that “you can’t go into downtown Athens, day or night, without being confronted by tons of homelessness,” he said. “You want to help but may not always know how.”

He saw a video of a couple handing out backpacks filled with necessities to homeless people, and he decided he could follow suit. He wanted each backpack to cost less than $20. After calling family members and friends, Leitz raised $450, which translated into enough stuff for 22 backpacks.

You can see the Backpack Project’s backpacks all around downtown Athens.

You can see the Backpack Project’s backpacks all around downtown Athens.

He filled the backpacks with clothes, toiletries and food, returned to Athens, and, on April 8, 2015, handed them out in downtown to people who looked as though they needed them. “It was a very moving experience,” Leitz said, “to know you were giving someone something they could really use.”

The Dunwoody High School graduate’s individual act of tzedakah led to the launch of the Backpack Project, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organization.

Its many volunteer staff members, all of whom are UGA students, have distributed more than 500 backpacks in Athens and Atlanta. The organization is student-run and serves the homeless in Georgia as a professional nonprofit organization, which Leitz said makes the group unique.

The Backpack Project distributes backpacks in various ways. Volunteers approach people on the street and hand them backpacks, and they work with community partners to distribute backpacks at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. “No matter what, though,” Leitz said, “the most important thing to every staff member of the Backpack Project is hand-delivering every backpack and building personal relationships with the people we serve.”

The Backpack Project operates year-round and makes summer and winter versions of the backpacks to provide the supplies that are most needed for each season. The project also creates men’s and women’s backpacks to provide the specific supplies that are most useful to every backpack’s recipient.

As with Leitz’s initial backpacks, the limit on the value of the contents remains $20, though every pack contains more than 40 items.

At 20, Leitz is a member of Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity and a rising junior at UGA, where he’s double majoring in finance and management in the Terry College of Business. He attends services at Hillel or Rohr Chabad in Athens and is a member of Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs.

The unusual student leadership structure for the nonprofit Backpack Project is staggered to ensure the continuity after Zack Leitz and others graduate.

The unusual student leadership structure for the nonprofit Backpack Project is staggered to ensure the continuity after Zack Leitz and others graduate.

In addition to his studies and fraternity activities, Leitz works many hours a week on the Backpack Project.

“It’s a big commitment of time from everyone on our staff,” he said. He explained that everyone on the Backpack Project’s staff is happy to dedicate the time because of a shared passion for helping the homeless. “We’re all volunteers.”

Athens has a plethora of nonprofit organizations, including ones that help people receive the assistance they need to get out of homelessness. Others help with various addictions or offer job training. The Backpack Project is different, Leitz said, “because we try to serve the homeless where they are today. And we get to know the people we serve. I love the work we do and the people we serve.”
The Backpack Project distributes homeless care backpacks twice a month, every month. The organization also hosts community events benefiting the homeless throughout the year.

The Backpack Project wants others in the community to get involved by hosting drives to donate backpacks and supplies, by donating money to buy backpacks and supplies, and by telling friends and family about the work the students are doing.

Leitz, recognized this year as one of the Reporter Newspapers’ 20 Under 20, and the other students have structured the organization so that it can keep going after they graduate from UGA. On staff are freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, which means that people can learn how the group works before they’re the ones in charge.

You can learn more about the project, sign up for email updates and make donations at www.thebackpackproject.ngo. You can also follow the Backpack Project on Facebook.