The Backpack Project in Athens is an organization that works to physically ease the burden of homelessness on those affected in the community by delivering them backpacks with necessary supplies and hot cooked meals. Vice President Esther Kim is a hero in the community for her work with The Backpack Project.

The Backpack Project in Athens cooks hot meals every Saturday to deliver to people experiencing homelessness. Vice President Esther Kim describes the connections she has made, the lives she has changed, and what she has gained as a leader of this organization.

“I think anyone that I work with says that their eyes have been opened because you go directly into these encampments. And you can see people on the streets downtown, but if you don’t go in, you never truly know what exactly they’re going through,” says Esther.

Homelessness in Athens has been a large political debate recently, especially with the opening of the First Step Homeless Encampment. Following the impact of COVID-19, shelters had capacities and many people without homes found themselves in illegal encampments. 

The Backpack Project (TBP) of Athens is a completely student-run organization that enters these encampments, finds out what these people need, provides them with the legal information they need to obtain, and delivers backpacks and hot meals to ease the burden that comes with homelessness. Since 2019, The Backpack Project has distributed over 4,000 hot meals to their clients, along with other necessities. 

Esther found TBP through the involvement network before she came to the University of Georgia. She expressed her interest before she got to campus, then went out on a meal delivery with them before classes started. “They were opening applications for the exec board, so I went on as a volunteer coordinator, and then I interned with them over the summer, and then ended up becoming vice president.”

Esther is now a second-year on the pre-med track, adding a public relations major. She wants to work with medicine and help people in disadvantaged populations and communities. She also thinks about opening up her own clinic in an area with limited access to healthcare. 

Esther and her family lived in Turkey before moving to the U.S., where her plans for a future in service developed. “When we were living in Turkey, we were helping a lot of Syrian refugees. And so I think that’s kind of almost the same concept, where they didn’t have a home.” 

Esther now touches local lives, providing these services through The Backpack Project.

“This couple, they have been homeless for a while. And we’ve just been building that connection with them. And then they were trying to apply for housing and get that permanent housing, and they needed verification to indicate that they are, in fact, homeless. And so we were able to provide that for them, and they were able to get housing and move into a new apartment. Seeing where they started to where they are now and just being able to support them along the way, it’s really cool.” 

TBP faces the challenge of being a completely student-run organization. Esther says it is easy to forget that they are only students with a limited amount of power and experience, because the organization functions as a nonprofit. “I think it’s helped me grow as a leader,” Esther says. “Being able to lead in that capacity was definitely a big learning curve. It was like, do I deserve to be here? Do I even know enough to be here?”

“In every experience, she’s really carried the club,” says Claire Grant, the current Director of Community Engagement for The Backpack Project. “We’re in a transition period right now where the people who founded it are leaving, and she has been the bridge between us and them.”

Claire says Esther has the mind for managing. She understands all the different sectors that makeup TBP and knows how to fit them all together. 

The two of them work together on Saturday mornings when the organization cooks and distributes meals to their clients across Athens. Together they direct the cooking and volunteers, drive around to deliver the meals, answer questions from newer volunteers, and manage the interactions between their clients and members of the organization. 

Esther is continuing to lead next year as executive director.