Backpacks full of items to be given out in December; help sought to meet growing need

CHAMPAIGN — On a cold, rainy November day, Charlesetta Hopkins showed up at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen for a hot meal and some warm company.

Hopkins, 25, used to be homeless, but now lives with relatives in Urbana. Still, she relies on Daily Bread to get by — and more.

"When I come here," she said Tuesday over a bowl of chicken noodle soup, "I feel like someone."

Last December, Hopkins was one of 400 people to receive a free backpack from Daily Bread filled with cold-weather gear, personal care items and Christmas treats.

In a year when Christmas wouldn't have happened for her otherwise, "it gave me everything I need," she said. "I came here and they blessed me."

Daily Bread will hand out backpacks again next month, and volunteers are asking for help from the public to meet a growing need.

Last year they ran out of backpacks. The line wrapped around the building twice, according to Hopkins, and by the end volunteers were handing out hats, gloves and whatever else they had left.

In the meantime, the soup kitchen's numbers have doubled, averaging more than 200 a day and exceeding 300 on occasion.

Volunteers are expecting a bigger crowd for this year's backpack distribution on Dec. 21.

"We're guessing our numbers will go up," said volunteer Ellen Harms. "Word seems to get around."

The giveaway started three years ago when volunteers noticed the soup kitchen's clients showing up without hats, gloves and warm clothes for the winter.

"We wanted to do something to help. We decided backpacks they could carry all year long would be the best way to start," said volunteer Gina Stocking.

The backpacks are full of candy and Christmas treats, lotion for chapped hands, toothpaste and other toiletries, and clothes to protect against the elements.

The packs go not just to people living on the streets but anyone in need, Stocking said.

"We have so many working poor," she said. "Not everyone is homeless, but they don't have the money for food and for extras."

Hopkins plans to be back, along with her parents and nieces and nephews.

So will Dustin Gilmore, 37, of Urbana. He is self-employed, doing lawn and tree maintenance and snow removal, but stops in for lunch at Daily Bread.

Last year he got a backpack with socks, jeans, toiletries, candy, a movie pass and a Subway gift card.

"It was great," he said. "They do a lot of stuff here for us."

Daily Bread has already begun collecting backpacks, raising money with a bread sale at St. Matthew's Church and contacting other churches and organizations.

Rick Hazlewood of Champaign dropped off a couple of backpacks on Tuesday. He knows Karen Pickard, a Daily Bread volunteer and his son's former teacher at St. Matthew's School.

"When Karen Pickard says so, you just do it," Hazlewood said.

Other groups, including Harms' book club and tennis group, fill backpacks every year in lieu of exchanging Christmas gifts.

"It's a feel-good kind of thing," Harms said. "We always prefer that to going out and getting each other ornaments or silly little things."

Donations can be dropped off at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, 124 W. White St., C, the week of Dec. 12-19, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Daily Bread will accept new or nearly new backpacks, as well as new socks, gloves, hats, scarves, long underwear, sweatshirts, rain ponchos, blankets, "anything to keep warm," Stocking said.

Also on the list: shaving cream, razors, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes and other toiletries.

People can donate empty backpacks or fill one with items from the list. Volunteers will go through them to make sure they contain equivalent items, she said.

Many of the soup kitchen's clients are adult men, and Daily Bread is requesting large and extra-large sizes for men's clothing. It also accepts items for women and children but asks that filled backpacks be marked with the gender and size.

For more information, call 356-2551 or 356-7687.

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