Joy, the unique and breathtaking emotion it is, comes in a plethora of shapes and sizes.
For Kerry Gomez, joy is often found in a backpack, a simple carry-all that when filled with life’s basic necessities, can turn a dark day brite for the less fortunate.
For the sake of record-keeping, Gomez is a card-carrying, love-my-job member of Rock Valley Physical Therapy’s, Moline, Illinois-based billing department. She has been for nearly a quarter-century. Gomez marvels daily at the care, compassion and dedication that makes Rock Valley go.
In April of 2018, Gomez and her 24-karat, Montana-sky-sized heart, read an article about a Washington state couple reaching out to the less fortunate through backpacks.The two would fill backpacks with toiletries, socks, gift cards and envelopes with modest amounts of cash, and share — without questions — to those struggling and without shelter.
Thus, “Backpack Blessings,’’ Gomez’s given name for the project locally, was born in the two-state region (Iowa-Illinois) that makes up the Quad-Cities.
“They (the couple from Washington) had seen the need and it started with (giving backpacks to) a couple people here and there — a couple a month — and then it started to grow,’’ Gomez said, noting each shared backpack was filled with a variety of life’s basics, things many of us take for granted, but play a huge role for those who might not have permanent shelter.
“I found that to be really cool,’’ Gomez added. “Shortly after that, “Admin’’ (administration at Rock Valley) was cleaning out some closets in billing to prep for a remodel and they ran across some backpacks. They were new, with the tags still on them.’’
Seems great deeds and good timing go together.
“Nobody touched them,’’ Gomez said of the backpacks sitting on the table that April day nearly three years ago. “I didn’t want to be the first (to take one). You don’t want to be the one who takes the last piece of cake. I had this in the back of my head — about this couple in Washington state — and I saw those backpacks sit there most of the day.’’
Finally Gomez acted, wanting to put the backpacks to great use like the Washington couple before her. Her Rock Valley workmates gave their blessings for Gomez to put her give-back, hand-up plan, in motion.
“I asked people in the office if they had eyes for the bags and if they didn’t this is what I had planned for them,’’ Gomez said. “They all said to take them.’’
Not having a concrete starting point, Gomez returned the online story about the Washington couple, garnering ideas regarding what to fill the backpacks with and where to start to share with those less fortunate.
“You think about what you might need in that situation,’’ Gomez said. “It was summer at the time and you think what someone — in need — struggling — maybe without shelter — might need during the summer. You realize it is much different than what someone might need in the winter. There are specifics — basics — but you have to step back and realize just where you need to start.’’
Soon Gomez was walking through a local dollar store, gaining inspiration with each trip up and down the aisle. Remember, she was trying to make a difference, but working within the space that a backpack offers.
“I got to thinking about necessary toiletries,’’ Gomez, a gifted artist who is the featured illustrator in the children’s book “Clementine the Porcupine,’’ said.
“Soap, washcloths, a pair of warm socks. A small umbrella even. It took me a couple trips around the store just looking at everything. By the time I was done, I had a pretty big bag and had managed to fill both backpacks.’’
The chore before her, though, was where to take the backpacks and with whom to share. A daunting task for someone who had never been through it.
“I had volunteered in the past at Christian Care, the men’s shelter in Rock Island,’’ Gomez said. “I got to thinking about them. Why not start there? I was not too familiar with agencies locally that served the homeless. I volunteered at King’s Harvest in Davenport, at it’s women’s shelter, but to start I wanted to stay on the Illinois side and just see how it went.’’
Just how does one share a small slice of making life better for those who might not have a roof over the heads?
“As I drove around I saw a Rock Island Police officer sitting in his (squad) car not too far from the shelter,’’ added Gomez. ”So I went up and introduced myself and asked him where people that have nowhere to go, nowhere to live, congregate. He quickly told me to go to the bus station.’’
It was then Gomez called for help from above.
“I just sat in my car and prayed over it,’’ Gomez said of taking what can be an intimidating step to assist those who are in need.
Would those she was reaching out to be receptive? A million thoughts raced through Gomez’s mind.
“On my own I didn’t think I could do it,’’ she said. “With grace is how I approached it. I didn’t want to offend anybody and look like I was here to save the day. I just wanted to find someone who needed a lift up. You know — and I am fortunate for all that I have — but there were times in my life where I was a paycheck away from being homeless. I can’t speak for everybody, but I’m sure that happens a lot. I just want to show these people some dignity.’’
In that first attempt, Gomez found the grace she was looking for. A young woman, soon to be homeless and four months pregnant, welcomed what Gomez was offering.
“She was sitting by herself and I asked if anyone was waiting for the bus to take them to a shelter across the river (from Rock Island, Ill., to Davenport, Iowa) and this young girl raised her hand,’’ Gomez said. “I introduced myself and talked to her for a few minutes to get her story. She had somewhere to stay that night — a friend’s house — but after that she was in need of shelter. I just said I have some things in my bag and wanted to give them to someone who might need them. I just said I wanted to bless you with this if you will let me. She lit up like a Christmas tree. She was so happy.’’
Soon, two men in need of a hand up, stopped to see what was happening. Gomez introduced herself to the men and explained what her role was that day at the bus station.
After a few minutes, one of the men asked if he could have the backpack.
“The young lady, who told me she knew the fellas that came up, told him she would use it that night to organize her things and then give it to him the next time she saw him,’’ Gomez said. “Already she was paying it forward, so I had two happy, smiling people my first time. I had a second bag. I went and got in and they (the two men) shared the things in it, but one of the guys let the other keep the bag so the young girl didn’t have to give up her bag.’’
The reaction to “Backpack Blessings’ “’ maiden voyage tugged deeply at Gomez’s heart. She decided to continue the mission.
“I got hugs from total strangers that day,’’ Gomez says, emotion causing her voice to crack. “I wanted to be anonymous and have no attention paid to what I was doing. I was blessed. I watched it work with how the three worked out what I had shared and the backpack situation. I did that one more time at the bus station a few weeks after that.’’
Growth of the program was to follow thanks to those inside the Rock Valley family. Christmas 2020, saw staffers at Rock Valley’s Crow Valley (Bettendorf, Iowa) clinic step forward and fill a pair of backpacks that found their way to a pair of individuals in Illinois experiencing great hardship.
The family of Michelle Sarb, Senior Physical Therapist at Davenport’s Dexter Court clinic and Rock Valley’s philanthropic lead, took “Backpack Blessings’’ to another level.
Instead of gifting each other this year, Sarb, one of life’s true gems, said her extended family opted to do something for others and decided to piggyback on Dexter’s collection of backpacks (approximately 10 this holiday season). Sarb’s parents delivered 16 filled backpacks to the Quad Cities the week after Christmas.
“I wanted to let others experience what I did, so I sent an email — company-wide — and explained what had just happened,’’ Gomez said. “The response was tremendous. Most of the clinics in the Quad-Cities wanted to share and have me distribute. Then we challenged the other clinics as well. It’s amazing, we just put a list out there and things just started rolling in. I took bags to Christian Care in Rock Island and they responded with a lovely thank you note. It’s amazing the difference a pair of warm socks, a jar of peanut butter and some non-perishable food items will do for someone needing a hand up.’’
Modestly and with humility in her voice and eyes, Gomez says “Backpack Blessings’’ will — for as long as she is able — be part of her life’s mission.
“There is a lady who is always on the (Harold’s) landing,’’ Gomez said of a familiar spot on the Rock River in Moline. “I cannot say for sure, but I believe — and others have said — she does not have permanent shelter. I see her now and she still has the backpack I shared with her awhile back. That tells me there is a need. It also helps to work for a company that cares and understands the need to step forward. It always has and always will.’’
Goodness equals joy…
By: Johnny Marx, Storyteller