On a Saturday morning in late September, William Morales-Gonzales, an Idaho native who has been living on the streets for two years, was on his way to the Denver Rescue Mission when three high school students approached him. They smiled and handed him a bag that contained a cheese sandwich, snacks, and a bottle of water. After starting his second day in a row without a meal, Morales-Gonzales was grateful for the sustenance.
Alyssa Gorkin, Ea Thompson, and Matine Khalighi had spent the previous Friday night picking up day-old bagels and pastries from Panera and assembling sandwiches in single-serving bags with packaged foods bought at Costco. Currently in their freshman year at separate high schools (Khaligi attends Smoky Hill High School and Thompson and Gorkin attend Cherry Creek High School), the trio started a nonprofit this spring while finishing up their final year at Campus Middle School.
“Our tax exempt date is March 6, which is also when we registered the name Helping the Homeless Colorado,” Gorkin said, recalling the day when they filed the IRS paperwork to establish a formal 501(c)(3) organization during their school lunch break. The idea was sparked from a class they took about charitable giving, taught by former Campus Middle School teacher Amy Bainbridge. Together, they decided that they wanted to play a more permanent role in helping the community.
Once Helping the Homeless Colorado was dubbed a legal charity, the three friends started divvying up responsibilities and figuring out how to apply for grants and get funding. “Donations don’t just come out of the air,” Khalighi said. Over the summer, the group set up tables outside local grocery stores to ask for contributions, organized fundraisers at places like Chick-fil-A, and applied for a $1,000 grant from Wells Fargo, which they were recently awarded.
Currently, about 85 percent of donations to Helping the Homeless Colorado go directly to their mission of supporting the less fortunate. But the founders have an ambitious goal to shift that number to 92 percent. “It’s a lot more appealing to donate to a charity where 92 percent of your $10 is going to helping people,” Gorkin said.
Gorkin serves as the organization’s treasurer and handles some website management, focusing on how the organization can stretch its funds to serve the most people. “We try to keep each meal under $3,” she said. “The less we’re spending on food, the more we can buy.” Besides using donated food from Panera and Einstein Bros. Bagels, the group purchases other items, such as fruit snacks and crackers, from Costco, which helps keep costs down. With every $1,000 they receive, Gorkin estimates they can provide individual meals for about 800 people. While the current focus is meal bags, they have also put together and handed out hygiene bags in the past.
Thompson is the secretary and handles all communications through social media and the website. Khalighi serves as vice president, helping with fundraising, social media, and sharing website management duties with Gorkin. Their former teacher Bainbridge is the organization’s president, although the three students share the majority of responsibility.
In creating the nonprofit, the teens hoped to inspire more Colorado youth to participate in homelessness outreach and increase awareness of the struggles this community faces. “Getting people our age involved isn’t easy, but it’s something we really strive to do,” Gorkin said. The three friends say they’ve noticed a discomfort around the idea of working with the homeless. “We really want the youth to become a bigger part of this charity,” Khalighi said, “because we’re the future.”
With a five-year goal to involve more of their peers in charitable work with Denver’s homeless population, they’re starting with strengthening their own awareness and exposure. “We just want the homeless to know that we care,” Thompson said.
It’s a reassurance that Morales-Gonzales felt on that bright September morning. As he continued toward the Denver Rescue Mission, he thanked the students for the breakfast, acknowledging their hard work. “I love what you guys are doing,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Get Involved: You can donate to Helping the Homeless Colorado online or by mailing cash, check, or credit card information to P.O. Box 37224, Denver, Colorado 80237.