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Helping the Homeless One Paper Bag at a Time

By Olivia Overman

Oh, what joy can be found in a paper bag! A simple brown paper bag filled with a pair of socks, snacks, toiletries and a few words of hope is all it takes sometimes to bring a little light to someone’s day… especially if that person has fallen on hard times and is homeless. This is exactly what the Hope in a
Bag program does for those in need. The brainchild of Corliss Udoema, the program helps bring a little joy, along with a few necessities, to those who use the winter shelter in Woodbridge.

How It All Started And More…
The Hope in a Bag program came to fruition after Thanksgiving dinner 2009 when Udoema and her family and friends filled paper bags with socks. With a history of social and community work throughout her life, this was a simple endeavor for Udoema. “I have a heart to help folks,” she said. “I was part of a sixth-grade social group that raised money and donated it to people in need.” And so, the groundwork was laid for the program that is now in its eighth year.

Each year the winter shelter on Potomac Mills Road, which opens around the middle of November, and closes around the beginning of April, provides a place to stay for those in need. People stay overnight and are expected to leave in the morning after breakfast but can return in the evening. It is during those
cold winter months that a pair of clean socks can mean the most to someone in need. So, every month Udoema and her volunteers deliver the bags of goodies to the shelter. Because it is an overnight shelter, Udoema is excited to include not only socks but also toiletries so people can have a nice shower or bath using soap and shampoo before they have to leave.

Robyn Johnson of Manassas donates to the program and said: “I traveled a lot because my youngest daughter played basketball in college. A few years ago, while on such a trip, I saw the free hotel amenities (shampoo, conditioner, lotion) and thought that they would be perfect for her [Udoema’s] vision, so I started collecting them while on my trips. Additionally, whenever I receive something free that I think would be good for the bags, I keep them as well—like the toothpaste and brush that my dentist gives me twice a year on my visit. This allows me to give to a different cause/organization from my usual list without being at the expense of my regular giving.”

Aided by local volunteers, including boy scouts, employees, family friends, and even her great-granddaughter Annalise, Udoema said she would put anyone to work for the program. But the giving does not just start in November and end in April; program volunteers have helped paint the shelter and bought tents, blankets, sheets and towels through a blanket campaign. Last Christmas, a church member delivered bags to the shelter with $5 gift cards to McDonald’s, and during the month of June (Udoema’s birthday month) she delivers cupcakes to the shelter. Further afield in North Carolina, the program has
provided classes for seniors and has donated 100 laptops to a local college.

Operations
The Hope in a Bag program was taken over by Contract Solutions Inc. (CSI), a professional staffing and
management support services firm with Udoema at its helm. Now run by its 501(c)3 arm, ALIA (Agape Love in Action, Inc.), which has most recently been able to register under grant.gov to receive federal grants, it is hoped the program can expand further in the community.

In 2017, Hope in a Bag services were expanded, via grants from Contract Solutions, to two churches: Light of Life Church in Manassas and St. James AME in New Bern, North Carolina. With federal grants, Udoema and her volunteers can achieve the goal of expanding into more churches in Prince William and
elsewhere to reach other people in need.

Currently, sponsorship from CSI as well as companies in the community is key to keeping the program alive. Outside sponsors include Capital One Bank (the first big corporate sponsor), Masonry Design Inc., Carter Realty, Rividium, BioGreen, and John Goldsmith of State Farm.

Udoema described the day she happened to call the Hampton Inn of Manassas to see if they had any excess toiletries, and hit the jackpot. “They happened to be switching the branding of their toiletry items, so I received boxes and boxes of toiletry items they did not need,” she said.

Other donations were received through two backyard fish fries where people donated monetarily and also through purchasing hats and t-shirts. Monetary donations can be made through the website agapeloveinaction.com, or alternatively, donations can be dropped off during CSI’s regular business hours (8:30 a. m. to 4:30 p. m. Monday through Friday) at 10627 Crestwood Drive, Manassas.

A Little Help Goes a Long Way
Asked what the reaction of the people is to the bags, Udoema said, “It is the smile of thank you that says it all. Nobody ever says ‘no thank you.’”

Hope in a Bag is such a simple way to help somebody in need. “It’s not how much you do or give. It’s about doing it consistently,” she said.

A graduate of American University’s School of Communication, Olivia Overman ([email protected]) is a freelance writer for both online and print publications.

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