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Everyday Heroes: Esther Kim

The Backpack Project of Athens

Esther Kim doesn’t have a hometown.

She was born in New York, but her family never stayed in one place for long. Kim attended two elementary schools, six middle schools and five high schools across the world. Her parents ultimately settled in Sugar Hill, Georgia, during her junior year of high school, leading her to attend the University of Georgia.

Kim’s atypical childhood as the daughter of Christian missionaries provided her with a unique perspective on service. Her family took mission trips to Turkey and lived abroad in South Korea. When she was a seventh-grader living in New York City, Kim remembers her family inviting a woman who was experiencing homelessness to live with them. They helped her get back on her feet, even while struggling to keep food on their table.

Credit: Nikolai Aksenov

Credit: Nikolai Aksenov

Kim, now a third-year student majoring in public relations, continues her parents’ legacy of service as the leader of a student-run nonprofit serving those experiencing homelessness and hopes to pursue a career in medicine.

As a freshman at the University of Georgia, Kim began volunteering with The Backpack Project of Athens in 2020.

In 2021, she received the Ash Service Award from the Morehead Honors College. The Ash Service Award is a $3,000 living stipend that supports two to four honors students while they intern full time for a service organization in Georgia. Kim interned with The Backpack Project, which has five chapters in the Southeast, and gained valuable insights into the nonprofit’s internal operations.

“That internship is really what had me commit whole-heartedly to (The Backpack Project),” Kim said. “Working full time over the summer opened my eyes, not just to the student aspect, but also the community aspect.”

Her dedication to The Backpack Project has grown stronger since she joined three years ago. As the executive director of the Athens chapter, she works alongside her peers to “ease the burden of homelessness, one backpack at a time.”

The Athens chapter has 591 general members and 186 trained volunteers. The other chapters are in Atlanta; Columbia, South Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; and Durham, North Carolina.

Volunteers fill backpacks with supplies and distribute them to individuals living on the street and in shelters. Backpacks contain everything from toiletries to food to clothing. The nonprofit also offers additional services, such as delivering Saturday meals to those experiencing homelessness.

Since 2019, The Backpack Project of Athens has distributed 495 gallons of water, 4,753 hot meals and 183 Narcan kits. Additionally, it has held 88 volunteer events and accumulated 358 hours of volunteer service.

Kim’s colleague on the executive board of The Backpack Project, Kade Garrard, emphasized her passion for her role.

“Everything with Esther is always geared towards the mission of what we do, and that is never lost,” Garrard said.

Kim said she values most how The Backpack Project allows her to build relationships through interaction with those in need. She recalled a time where she and other members held a long conversation with a community member, and she walked away with a new perspective and renewed humility in her role.

“You can say, ‘I know this person.’ When you see them on the street, you remember their names,” Kim said. “It’s a give-and-take moment, and it’s a relationship built on mutual respect.”

HOW TO HELP

For more information, visit https://athens.thebackpackproject.ngo/index.html.

To volunteer with The Backpack Project, click here.

If you’d like to make a donation, please visit https://athens.thebackpackproject.ngo/donate.html.


WE’RE STRONGER TOGETHER: A SPECIAL PROJECT

This place we call home is filled with ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary feats. Their selfless acts make this region so special – and they bring out the best in all of us. With the holidays upon us, we wanted to share their inspiring stories, celebrate their accomplishments, and offer ways that you can help.

Just as the 55 people we’re profiling can’t do it alone, nor can we. That’s why we worked closely with our partners to bring you this collection of uplifting stories.

We hope they leave you feeling inspired and ready to tackle the busy new year that lies ahead.

We hope they make you feel more connected to your community or to your neighbors.

And maybe, just maybe, they will motivate you to come up with your own small way to make a big difference in the lives of others.

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