Ryan Gustis was just 9 years old when he was inspired to help the homeless. In a few short weeks he’ll be starting his sophomore year at Downers Grove North High School, but his commitment to helping the homeless remains a central focus as well as continuing to build support for his nonprofit, The Backpack Project.
“I’m thankful for the partnerships and people who were there to guide us so we can help people. It definitely has been a learning experience,” Ryan said.
Ryan, his sister Claire and his parents, Steve and Melissa, were viewing the holiday displays and decorations at the Macy’s store in downtown Chicago when Ryan noticed homeless people. He wanted to help.
“Ryan is that kid that always wants to talk to people,” Melissa Gustis said.
It started with a simple idea, a backpack with some items. He wanted to hand deliver the backpacks because the personal connection was important, he said. Soon, extended family wanted to help, and their friends and family wanted to help, slowly expanding the circle of those who wanted to be part of the project. With the assistance of friends and community members, they established the nonprofit The Backpack Project.
The outpouring of support and donations never ceases to amaze Ryan. Along with the fundraisers and backpack packing days, soon others asked if they could have a backpack or two to deliver to people they saw in need.
To date, more than 1,800 backpacks have been delivered to individuals primarily in the Chicago area. But thanks to friends and family, backpacks have traveled across the country from California to Florida.
“I would have never imagined this,” Ryan said.
In 2020, the pandemic created challenges and meant a pause to the group backpack packing days, but it didn’t stop Ryan and his family from continuing to pack some on their own from their family home in Woodridge where the garage serves as storage.
“We haven’t parked our cars in our garage for quite some time,” Melissa Gustis said.
Last year when the tornadoes damaged homes in Woodridge, Ryan and his family provided backpacks for the Red Cross to distribute.
Through the years the backpack contents change and evolve, thanks in part to the conversations Ryan has with the recipients who sometimes offer feedback. Included in the backpacks is a small gift card to a fast food restaurant.
“It means they can go into the restaurant and order some food and use the bathrooms since they are a customer, too,” Ryan said.
The backpacks often include a handwritten card or note, sometimes made from local Scout groups. Thanks to a friend’s suggestion, the group applied for and received a donation of socks from Bombas, a company that promises for every sock purchased, it donates a pair. Ryan said he includes a couple of pairs of socks in every backpack, as well as a first aid kit, hand warmers, ponchos and tarps.
“I think the first backpacks had 10, maybe 15 items and now’s it’s about 40 items,” Ryan said, adding since the pandemic he always includes masks and hand sanitizer.
The experiences of helping others, building partnerships and working with local businesses inspires Ryan to consider a career in business, he said.
“So far, every year the project has grown,” Ryan said.
This spring he had a backpack packing event, filling a box truck with backpacks, many of which have made their way to help others this summer, with friends and family taking a few with them on their travels, extending the reach and care of The Backpack Project.