Niki Ottosen knows what it’s like to live out of a backpack.
As a gardener, every morning Ottosen would load up her backpack with water, lunch, rain gear, gloves and clothing. Being out in public parks for the majority of the day, rain or shine, what she had in her backpack was what she had access to during the day. It was also where Ottosen began to notice places where the region’s homeless were stashing their belongings.
“My backpack was my lifeline. It had everything I needed to keep me comfortable through the day,” the Colwood resident said. “I was very aware that people were living outside and I understood how hard it must be because I was outside all day, but I had a warm bed to go home to and they didn’t.”
Understanding the importance of having everything with you and wanting to give back to the community, Ottosen started the Christmas Backpack Project. As part of the project, Ottosen, her husband and daughter gathered a few backpacks and loaded them with necessities, which she donated to homeless people in downtown Victoria on Christmas Eve.
It’s a tradition that Ottosen has continued over the past 10 years and has grown into a community-wide effort with backpack donations pouring in from all over the Capital Region. Last year, 187 backpacks were donated, which volunteers packed and distributed to the less fortunate. Now, heading into the holiday season, efforts are ramping up for this year’s campaign, which kicked off recently.
This year’s list of donations include gloves, socks, umbrellas, blankets and scarves, toiletry items such as toothbrushes, razors, and feminine hygiene products, as well as food such as cookies, peanut butter and crackers, protein bars and instant hot chocolate.
“I’ll be happy with 20 [backpacks] or I’ll be happy with 200, I’ll be happy with whatever we get,” said Ottosen, noting the operation has become so large that volunteers pack the backpacks a week before Christmas and deliver them to shelters, who distribute them. “It does make a difference in the lives of our community members and that’s really what it’s all about, is helping people who live in our community.”
Backpacks can be dropped off until Friday, Dec. 15 at the Colwood municipal hall (3300 Wishart Rd.), Alpine Disposal and Recycling (1045 Dunford Ave), Disaster Aid Canada (426 Williams St.) and Millstream Self Storage (888 Short St.). For more information, search Christmas Backpack Project on Facebook.