Virginia Tech Magazine
College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Better to Give

By Jill Ashton

Taking the Heat

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When I first met Tom Bagamane, it was in the context of his being an enthusiastic graduate of the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, where I work. It didn’t take me long to realize, though, that his passion also extended to the not-for-profit he’d formed in 1999. After hearing him talk about The Giving Spirit, I wanted to learn more.

And so, one early morning in May 2016, I found myself in the basement of a Los Angeles church on baby powder duty. I was one of about 120 volunteers who had formed an assembly line to fill backpacks for the homeless.

Twice a year, The Giving Spirit distributes kits to the homeless community of the greater Los Angeles area. Both the summer backpack and the winter duffel contain dozens of basic necessities for surviving on the streets: food, water, socks, raingear, toiletries. The seasonally appropriate items are ones most Americans take for granted, but for the homeless, they’re pure treasure.

Our first stop that day was the Union Rescue Mission, which serves about 5,000 people in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles. There we took a tour and learned about the program, which provides homeless men and women with the opportunity to build a bank account to save for an apartment.

We then fanned out across the greater Los Angeles area, driving in teams from neighborhood to neighborhood looking for people in need. Whenever we encountered someone living on the streets, we would offer a backpack and spend time going over the contents with them.

I had been strong that entire day until I met Squeaky, a middle-aged African American woman who was sweeping away debris from a tent village under an overpass. She put down her tattered broom, and together we looked through the bag. When she saw the toothbrush, she started crying.

“You have no idea how much this one act of kindness means,” she said, hugging me close. “Just these simple things mean the world to me.”

Squeaky then showed me around her tiny community, where she and dozens of other people lived. She introduced me to a friend several tents down who used her welfare checks to buy chicken. There, in her tiny tent, the friend would fry chicken for the entire group; the smell was tantalizing.

Squeaky told me the city had recently turned off the nearby water.

“I know we live in tents under a bridge,” she said. “But we’re not animals. We deserve the same rights as anyone else.”

I told her I hoped the backpack would help her get through some of her tough times, and she hugged me again. As I walked away, I had to brush tears from my eyes.

I thought about the impact Tom Bagamane is making in individual lives. In that one day, we served more than 2,500 people with the kits we’d assembled; since founding The Giving Spirit, Tom has helped tens of thousands of people. There’s a Hokie who is exemplifying the university’s Ut Prosim motto—That I May Serve—every day on the streets of Los Angeles. We should all follow his lead by paying it forward in some way in our daily lives.

Jill Ashton has been director of development at the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences since 2015.