Chicago youth shares “Blessing Bags” with homeless

By Chinelo Onwualu

On March 1, 2017, nine-year-old Jahkil Jackson stood before a screaming crowd of over 15,000 young change-makers like himself at WE Day Illinois. For Jahkil, this moment marked a turning point in his young life. It was where his passion for helping the homeless in Chicago, Illinois, the city where he lives, expanded from something he did with his family and friends to something much more.

As an only child, Jahkil has never needed to think much about sharing. But in 2013, when he was five years old, his great-aunt and cousins took him to a part of the city known as The Triangle to spend the day serving chili at the homeless encampment there. He was so moved by what he saw that when he returned home, he wanted to continue to help.

“It really made me sad to see people laying in the dirt,” said Jahkil. “So, when I went home, I asked my parents if we could build them all houses.”

They couldn’t, so he began carrying extra bottles of water and granola bars to hand out to any homeless person he saw. His parents learned to keep plenty of spare change in their car for any panhandlers who approached them, or risk upsetting their son.

“We had to figure out how to try and help him so that we weren’t constantly giving out money here and there,” said Na-Tae’ Thompson, Jahkil’s mom. “We just couldn’t afford to keep that going.”

Thompson began doing some research. She found out that a friend of hers was collecting money to create bags with warm clothing items and canned goods to distribute to the homeless in the city for the holidays. She told Jahkil about the drive. He loved the idea and wanted to do something similar.

Jahkil made a list of things that people who live on the streets might need every day. It included items like soap, hand sanitizer, tissue paper, baby wipes, deodorant, water bottles in the summer and scarves and hats in the winter. In February 2016, when he was eight years old, he made the first of what he called “Blessing Bags” and handed them out at the Pacific Garden Mission homeless shelter in Chicago.

“We really thought it was going to be a one-time donation and we weren’t going to do it again,” said Thompson, laughing, “but it’s turned out to be a whole thing!”

Within a month, friends and family were donating money as well as time and toiletries. So, Jahkil’s mother helped him create a non-profit, Project I Am, to handle the funds. As the owner of a small non-profit herself, she knew that was the best way to keep the project growing. But things took a whole new turn when Jahkil was invited to WE Day Illinois as a guest speaker in 2017.

The assistant teacher in his fourth grade class at the time was one of the coordinators of the WE Club at his school, and though the group is only open to seventh and eighth graders, she knew about Jahkil’s project. The club earned a ticket to WE Day that year because of its volunteer activities, and, because of his project, Jahkil not only received a ticket, he was also invited to speak.

On the WE Day stage, Jahkil spoke with international rap star Xzibit, and explained his passion for helping end homelessness. When he stepped off the WE Day stage, Jahkil moved with a confidence his mother hadn’t seen before.

“My husband and I, we were on the sidelines thinking: ‘Oh Lord, he’s only nine years old,’” Thompson remembered. “But he was cool. We were the ones freaking out.”

Today, 11-year-old Jahkil does many things: he plays basketball after school. He dances with both a breakdance team and a tap-dancing troupe. He even acts and sings—appearing in a musical, a short film, a commercial and a few TV shows. Plus, he’s still giving out Blessing Bags—February 2019 will mark his third year.

Once a month, Jahkil and his family host “packing parties.” For a few hours, they gather friends, family and other volunteers to help put the bags together. Then, he goes to shelters all over the city and hands them out. He’s given out 20,000 bags so far.

His work has earned him accolades from celebrities like basketball legend Lebron James and former-U.S. President Barack Obama, who made it a point to meet Jahkil during a visit to Chicago in February 2018.

Jahkil’s high profile has also sometimes drawn unwanted attention from people who make snide comments about his appearance on social media. But he hasn’t let either the cheers or the condemnations get to him.

He’s a member of the WE Schools Chicago Youth Council, a group of 17 students from grades 6 to 12 who work with WE to develop leadership skills and share strategies for promoting social good. And though he’s still too young to join the WE Club at his school, Jahkil attends all their fundraising events, and club members regularly volunteer to help him pack and distribute his Blessing Bags.

Through his involvement with WE, Jahkil has found a community of like-minded young people and it’s changed the way he sees school and the rest of his life. His mother notes that he is more focused, determined and goal oriented.

“It makes me feel good that I’m making a difference in the world and people are noticing,” said Jahkil. “It makes me feel excited and useful.”

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