Between March 1 and May 1, United Way of Greater Atlanta will collect, deliver and distribute more than 30,000 shoeboxes to agencies across its 13-county region.
The annual Shoebox Project has been in existence since 2006. Each of these shoeboxes is filled by local volunteers with donated toiletries like shampoos, soap, toothpaste— also items like washcloths and socks— and these are distributed by agencies to needy people in the area.
The thought behind the project was this: Men, women and children who are experiencing homelessness —it could be temporary or chronic homelessness— are often left without these most basic necessities. These are things that could easily be taken for granted, but could possibly be something that is a barrier preventing a person from improving their lives.
That’s one of the things United Way has been working to reverse over the past 12 years.
“The project started as just a Mother’s Day project where people can get together and decorate shoeboxes and drop them off at United Way,” said Brianna Alexander, senior community volunteer manager and director of the Shoebox Project. “We distributed them to agencies that served women, but now that has evolved into men, women and children.”
Groups will often hold massive shoebox parties where volunteers at churches or different offices will come together to pack the boxes, Alexander said. They decorate the boxes and drop them off at one of 18 locations in the 13 counties. Those are all collected and brought to a warehouse space where volunteers will sort through the boxes to make sure there are not any prohibited items such as razors, medicine or food items.
“It is an act that people of any age can get involved in,” Alexander said. “They have little kids and senior citizens creating boxes. It’s a simple way to get involved. It has just become bigger and bigger every year.”
Alexander starts coordination of the project each year around December, and from there she starts solidifying the bigger things like securing a warehouse space and people to pick up the donations. She said United Way will come to your location and pick up the boxes as long as there are up to 150 boxes.
United Way gets boxes from more than 100 agencies. One of which is Gateway Center, a non-profit organization on Pryor Street in Atlanta, that aims to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring in the Greater Atlanta area.
The center does this by helping people who are experiencing homelessness move from the street to stable housing. The city provides a place for people who are homeless to come and receive hot meals, showers, medical care up to five days a week, help with employment and it also houses up to 359 men with temporary housing as they look for something more permanent.
Gateway Center’s building is a massive four-story unit across from the Fulton County Courthouse. The building used to be the old jail. On the bottom floor, people enter through to a front desk where they can receive a towel and toiletries. They can then access a shower— men have access to showers in the mornings and evenings, women can use the showers in the afternoons.
“We have benefited greatly from Shoebox in the past,” said Bec Cranford, director of Community Engagement and Volunteer Services. “At Gateway Center, we have 359 male residents transitioning from homelessness. We also have a second low-barrier shelter with 100 men. We do public services like showers and hygiene kits, telephone and case management and housing assessment.”
Cranford said when the organization first started in July 2005, United Way of Greater Atlanta was their primary donor. She said now United Way provides about 20 percent of their annual budget.
“We’ve been working with Shoebox for as long as I can remember,” Cranford, who has been with Gateway Center for seven years, said. “I went one year and picked up 400 shoeboxes myself from the office in Cobb. Maybe three or four years ago, we went to the warehouse and picked up the leftover items like razors that they couldn’t use.
“In the past, we’ve taken between 500 and 1,000 shoeboxes.”
Alexander said Cranford and Gateway Center have also consistently provided donations to the cause themselves. Cranford said they like to hand out hygiene items when they have an abundance.
“We take a myriad of different items,” Cranford said. “I’m of the opinion that if we’ve got any leftover, then we should try to give that away.”
The Shoebox Project has been an idea that is easy for the community to latch onto, Alexander said. It’s not a hard sell.
These are items that are inexpensive, but they are something that are always needed.
“It helps us put it into perspective,” Alexander said. “We don’t think twice about having toothpaste or deodorant. It’s just another step we take to do to get to work, but this is a good way to introduce philanthropy to people, and it’s a well-rounded opportunity. We’re able to meet the need for our community, and it’s a good way for our stakeholders to get involved.”