Speed of LITE: Formerly homeless student reinvents the homeless care package

A care package for the homeless might include a sandwich, a toothbrush and a couple bucks if you’re lucky. Within hours, all that well-meaning effort disappears.  
A care package for the homeless might include a sandwich, a toothbrush and a couple bucks if you’re lucky.
 
Within hours, all that well-meaning effort disappears.  
 
“That's not helping the problem,” said Kiendra Williams, 18. “I'm trying to do something that's going to change the person's life and not just their day.”
 
Williams has started her own initiative to reinvent the homeless care package. Her approach, called Hearts and Homes, looks more like a curated subscription box.
 
It contains right-sized clothing and accessories, a list of places that are hiring and job interview tips along with the expected sandwich.
 
She’s putting the boxes together with the help of Let’s Innovate Through Education Memphis. The nonprofit works with inner-city students to develop, produce and pitch community-changing products and programs.
 
She is one of 25 students going through the program this semester, which concludes on December 9 with a pitch night where she will compete for $500 in additional funding.
 
“With Kiendra we thought about subscriptions like Birchbox, which is customized for each person,” said Hardy Farrow, founder and executive director of LITE Memphis. “I thought to myself, is there a way we can adapt it to homeless populations and create a personalized job prep box for a homeless person.”
 
Farrow said that Williams is the first student to tackle homelessness in the three-year-old program.
 
“Most of the time we try to steer them away from that because there's a lot of attention to the issue, and we try to get them to focus on where they could be doing something different.”
 
However, Williams had a different perspective. Her family suffered homelessness in 2008. Her mother worked as a hairdresser while the family lived in a car.
 
Recent figures put Memphis’ homeless population around 1,800 people.
 
“I realized that sometimes people just give up and lose their confidence, and then they don't have a job,” Williams said. “Once you get knocked down that low, you really don't want to ask for help. I know because that's what happened to my mother.”
 
Williams said that with a little bit of encouragement and connection to resources, people could regain their self-confidence and find their way out of homelessness.  
 
Optimism aside, her Hearts and Homes boxes provide a valuable and under-realized resource to the homeless community. Farrow said that there isn’t another group in the city filling this specific need.
 
Instead of turning her supplies over to a more established nonprofit, Williams plans to deliver the goods face-to-face at homeless shelters.
 
“I want to see their face and I want them to see my face and know that I care. Seeing a person smiling is more than rewarding,” she said.
 
To fill the boxes, she’s organized clothing drives at six area schools as well as a handful of churches. Her initial goal is to create 25 customized boxes to be handed out some time in December.
 
With additional funding, she could organize regular events like mentoring sessions or group hair-cuts.
 
A senior at Soulsville Charter School, Williams balances schoolwork with launching a start-up. She hopes to major in accounting at Middle Tennessee State University and use the accreditation to launch a nonprofit dedicated to homelessness issues.
 
“I'm trying to do something that's going to change the person's life and not just their day. I want to reach out to them, like LITE did to me, and help them connect with people and pull themselves up,” she added.

Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Prior to joining High Ground News as managing editor, she worked as a staff reporter for The Daily News. She has also written for Memphis Business Journal, The Memphis Flyer and Inside Memphis Business. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.
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