Ryan Gustis is only 13, but The Backpack Project he started is making a difference for Chicago’s homeless

It began in 2016 after his family ran into a homeless woman downtown. He and his volunteers have given out more than 700 backpacks filled with essential items to people in need.

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Ryan Gustis hands Rickie Sparks a backpack full of toiletries and essential items like face masks.

Ryan Gustis hands Rickie Sparks a backpack full of toiletries and essential items like face masks.

Max Herman / Sun-Times

It’s a Saturday morning in Chicago, and 13-year-old Ryan Gustis is listening to stories of despair and hope from a handful of homeless people he has just met.

“There was one woman that was telling us that she had finally gotten out of a bad relationship last year, but she had no where to go and no family to help her,” Ryan says after his latest trip with his father Steve into the city as part of The Backpack Project. “She was stuck on the streets and struggling to find a job.

“But, you know, then the pandemic hit,” the Woodridge teen says. “That’s what made it really hard for her to find a job.”

It’s these stories and these people that prompted him to start The Backpack Project, a nonprofit organization that, since 2016, has distributed more than 700 backpacks to people in need in Chicago and the suburbsd.

It started after a trip downtown with his family to see the Christmas lights when they saw a homeless woman with a sign, asking for help.

Ryan Gustis and his father Steve Gustis prepare to hand out backpacks filled with toiletries and essential items like face masks on Lower Wacker Drive.

Ryan Gustis and his father Steve Gustis prepare to hand out backpacks filled with toiletries and essential items like face masks on Lower Wacker Drive.

Max Herman / Sun-Times

“Her sign read, ‘I’m not a bad girl, I just made a wrong decision,’ and that made a big impact on me,” Ryan says.

With donations from family, friends and others, Ryan and his fellow volunteers fill backpacks with items like water, socks, hand sanitizer and handmade cards. They pass them out around downtown about 10 to 12 times a year.

Because of the pandemic, they’ve made fewer trips this year to distribute them. But when they have, the stories they’ve heard have been even more painful.

“Some people we were talking to were telling us about how hard it is to get into shelters now because they have much smaller capacities,” Ryan says of the COVID-19 restrictions homeless shelters must follow. “Other people were telling us about how some shelters won’t even let them go inside to shower or fill up their water.”

Ryan Gustis and volunteers Julia and Maria Krapec pack essentials such as socks and toiletries into backpacks to be distributed to homeless people. 

Ryan Gustis and volunteers Julia and Maria Krapec pack essentials such as socks and toiletries into backpacks to be distributed to homeless people.

Provided

“The pandemic may have changed everything, but the core values of The Backpack Project have stayed the same,” he says. “We are still trying to spread kindness and talk to people and get as many bags to people as we can. But, yes, how we do it and how many people can be involved has certainly changed.”

The packing parties held before the pandemic — in which maybe 100 people would gather to pack the backpacks — no longer can happen. Now, Ryan relies on smaller groups of masked volunteers to fill the backpacks.

He’s found that they’re needed not only in the city but also in suburban areas where homeless people stand with signs asking for help, often with their young childen at their side.

“Ryan has been a tremendous partner for us, especially during COVID-19,” says Brian Cunningham, Woodridge’s police chief, who has partnered with The Backpack Project. “We’ve seen an increase in homelessness, so the officers here carry around those backpacks in the trunk. And, whenever they see somebody, they reach out to hand them one. It makes a huge difference for us as far as our relationship with the homeless community.”

Ryan Gustis hands Sara Engles a backpack full of toiletries and items like face masks in East Garfield Park.

Ryan Gustis hands Sara Engles a backpack full of toiletries and items like face masks in East Garfield Park.

Max Herman / Sun-Times

“I’m just very proud of where he’s gone and where he wants to take The Backpack Project,” Steve Gustis says. “This has become a whole family project, but Ryan makes all of the decisions. We joke around and say that we are just here for logistical support.”

Ryan’s now looking for a bigger van to distribute the backpacks, “so we don’t have to use my dad’s truck all the time.”

He’s also trying to find a small warehouse space to store supplies and looking for gift cards to include in backpacks ready for delivery.

Fore more information about The Backpack Project, emailpackthekindness@gmail.com or look on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for@packthekindness.

Tricia Despres is a freelance writer.

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