America is an incredibly generous nation, and at no time is that more evident than during the Christmas season. Starting with Thanksgiving, traditional and new media are flooded for weeks with heartwarming stories of Americans helping and serving the less fortunate in their communities.
But what happens when the holidays are over and regular life resumes?
I remember as a child being very taken with the idea of serving food to the homeless on Thanksgiving. What better way to show you care than to reach out to others on one of our nation’s most cherished holidays?
The thing is, hundreds, if not thousands, of other people had that same thought. Soup kitchens rarely lack for help on Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mother gently pointed out that the need would still be there the rest of the year, and perhaps an even bigger impact could be had by serving the homeless the other eleven months of the year.
Jay Herriott thought the same thing.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2002, Herriott had spent most of the day working, and decided around 2 o’clock that afternoon that he needed to eat. So he hit up his local Boston Market, bought an eight-person meal, and shared it with seven homeless men in Washington, D.C.
“I did it again on Christmas,” Herriott told Opportunity Lives. “And just did it every Thanksgiving and Christmas. After a few years, you start noticing the same people going to the same place.”
But he couldn’t help but to wonder who was helping the rest of the year.
Fast forward to 2010, when both Thanksgiving and Christmas fell on the 25th day of their respective months. Herriott decided that year that he was going to serve the homeless in the D.C. area in some way on the 25th day every month.
Thus the 25th Project was born.
Herriott leads volunteers on the 25th of each month to deliver food to Northern Virginia’s homeless communities. | Photo: 25th Project
Making personal connections with the homeless communities they serve is the ultimate goal of T25P.
“We have a different approach because we’re trying to befriend them. We’re just trying to open the door for a conversation,” Herriott said. “And then if we can get to know who they are, we can figure how is the best way to help them.”
Sometimes, the best way to help is very simple. At this time of year, when the temperatures in the D.C. area often drop below freezing, the goal is to not have any hypothermia deaths. That means Herriott and his T25P crew will be spending many cold days and nights delivering propane tanks to the homeless communities inhabiting wooded areas in Northern Virginia.
The 25th Project has its own hashtag: OTODOT. It stands for One Day, One Thing, One Time. It is the mantra that drives Herriott and his team to deliver the basics — tents, food, clothing, heat — to a homeless population dealing with a variety issues, including mental health disorders and substance abuse. Some just want to be off the grid. All are in need of help.
During the winter months, the 25th Project will deliver propane tanks so that the homeless can have heat to stave off the cold. | Photo: 25th Project
When asked if he has a professional background or life experiences that prepared him for this challenge, Herriott said: “I just care. It bothers me that we have this much homelessness in some of the richest counties in the nation.”
The 25th Project makes it easy for interested volunteers to OTODOT. In January, there will be chili cook-off. February is “Soups and Socks,” which has become a national event. There will be a food truck event in April, and a fish fry in June.
Herriott hopes to expand T25P to other parts of the country, and plans are underway for a chapter in southern Maryland.
But that’s not the only thing in the works.
Herriott’s long-term vision is to buy a piece of land on which to have an organic farm run by the homeless and the formerly homeless. T25P already has a partnership in place that allows for homeless men and women to be trained in the intricacies of organic farming. They recently planted a raised organic farm bed at a campsite, and the homeless population there grew their own vegetables.
As a friend told Herriott, “There’s a lot of therapy at the end of a shovel.”
Herriott likes to gauge T25P’s progress by “wins.” Wins include things like an entire winter without any of the homeless succumbing to hypothermia (not all winters are wins). Or a win might be one of their homeless friends going a week … a day … an hour … without having a drink. The really big win, of course, is for one of their homeless friends to get “out.”
“It’s cool to see when someone gets out,” Herriott said. “It’s very satisfying and gratifying to know that we’ve had a little part in helping them get out.”
The 25th Project is funded entirely by corporations and private donations. You can donate by heading over to http://www.the25thproject.org/donate.
Teri Christoph is a contributor for Opportunity Lives, a co-founder of Smart Girl Politics, an online community for conservative women, and a full-time fundraiser for conservative candidates and causes. She lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with her husband and four children. Follow Teri on Twitter @TeriChristoph.