It was a frigid December night in Washington, D.C., when Tom Bagamane, MBA ’95, pulled up to a red light near the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. His gaze through the car window was caught by the filthy steam emitting from the grates along the sidewalk. He looked closer. There were people scattered everywhere, trying to sleep, huddling for warmth. That instance lit a fire under Bagamane. He went to the store and returned with essentials—blankets, personal sanitation products, food—to lay beside the sleeping homeless people for them to wake up to. Almost thirty 30 years later, the homeless crisis faces the pandemic of COVID-19, requiring everyone to display more of this giving spirit.
When Bagamane moved to Los Angeles after graduating from George Mason University, he witnessed the homeless issue was even worse than what it was in Washington, D.C. Far worse. He officially founded The Giving Spirit in 1999, and they have served over 62,000 lives since then. “I was at a party in LA and talking to a few people about how we cared for the homeless in D.C.,” he says. “I made the challenge right then and there and our first three volunteers signed on.” Now at 20,000 volunteers strong, The Giving Spirit’s regular operations center around one-on-one encounters with homeless individuals. The pandemic made that no longer feasible, and it also meant that the homeless would need even more assistance. This is when they launched the 10,000 Lives Project.
For the 10,000 Lives Project, Bagamane and his leaders committed to serve 10,000 homeless lives in 60 days through the of assembly and distribution of 10,000 Health+Safety kits. Thanks to the City of Los Angeles, they were given space in the Westchester Community Center where they reconfigured their 20-year old service model into three assembly phases to create a CDC-compliant sanitary workspace. While they do receive some product donations, the majority of what goes into the kits is purchased at wholesale. “We will never give people anything we wouldn’t want to be given ourselves,” says Bagamane. Contents include masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, hand towels, soap, wet wipes, packaged food, water, handmade friendship cards, and other items that recipients require for safety and survival.
Delivering survival assistance is only half of The Giving Spirit’s mission. The other half is engaging in dialog to provide hope to many who have given up. “The tragic factors that impact many of our own lives cause those without safety nets of family and community and financial resources to fall through the cracks,” says Bagamane. “Add in systemic racial and gender inequality to that lack of support and you can imagine how vulnerable life can become.” He trains his volunteers to engage in respectful and thoughtful conversations with those they serve and to commit to both listen and learn intently. The Giving Spirit, as reflected in their “they are us” motto, is committed to providing insight into the realities of poverty and homelessness to individuals and communities to develop long-term solutions based on fact-based learning. The hope of Tom Bagamane is that everyone embraces their own giving spirit. “When we collectively embrace the notion that every life has equal value, we immediately remove the obstacles to real change, one life at a time.”