DINUBA – A Dinuba High School graduate is helping out the community this holiday season through the fifth annual “Backpacks Full of Hope” donation drive.
Every year, Angel Hernandez passes out backpacks with essential supplies to the city’s residents experiencing homelessness, and every year, community members contribute more and more to the cause. As the donation drive has grown and evolved, Hernandez said he has seen increased support from local residents, which motivates him to keep up the work.
“That’s what’s keeping me going — the way that I know that I’m giving back to the community and then also inspiring others to give back too; that’s my main reason to do this,” Hernandez said.
This year, the distribution event on Dec. 20 also included a “take what you need” table for anyone in the community and had informational booths staffed by local organizations to help connect people to available resources.
Present at the event was the California LifeLine Program, which provides discounted cell phone service to those eligible; the Family HealthCare Network (FHCN), which conducted blood pressure monitoring; Parenting Network, Inc., from Dinuba, which shared the resources they provide to families; members of the Tulare County Task Force on Homelessness; and the housing navigation team from Community Services Employment Training (CSET).
“It’s just for everybody to go see what they can take out of it, whether it’s a backpack or some information that could help them,” Hernandez said.
The “take what you need” table included socks, used clothing, blankets, feminine products and more, and the distribution event also had free snacks. Hernandez said he wanted to make the event as inclusive as possible, because he does not want to turn anyone away.
Hernandez, who is from the unincorporated community of London, began the donation drive in 2018 when he was a junior in high school. He said he was inspired to start it after taking a trip to Sacramento and seeing how pervasive homelessness was there, specifically against a backdrop of wealth.
“It was raining that day, … and it was outside of this fancy restaurant, and I was so sad … I felt like I had to do something,” Hernandez said.
At the time, Hernandez was involved in CSET’s paid work experience program and worked as a youth clerk at the Hodges Community Center in London. With help from Connie Huerta, the community resource liaison at the center, Hernandez raised funds for supplies and completed his first backpack distribution.
The following year, Hernandez kept up with the backpack distribution on his own, though he said he received support from Noah Whitaker, who works at the Homeless Initiatives program coordinator for the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA). Hernandez said he works with Whitaker to get the word out to those who are interested in donating supplies.
This year’s event provided the most resources to date, Hernandez said, as he keeps improving his outreach strategy and earns more trust from the community. He said that when he started, he was not very successful in receiving donations from community members, but now he gets messages from people unprompted asking how they can contribute.
Hernandez specifically credited Beatriz Castillo, owner of new Dinuba flower shop Sweet Creationz, for her help this year, as well as community advocate Amie Musleh.
Castillo offered to use her flower shop as the donation drop-off center, which Hernandez said saved him a lot of time and gas money; he would previously drive to the communities surrounding Dinuba to pick up donations. Musleh helped Hernandez with creating and distributing flyers and determining what resources to incorporate into this year’s event and future events, he said.
Hernandez has been involved in community service ever since he was younger, when he helped with the push to open a Tulare County branch library in London; the library officially opened in 2016. In 2021, Hernandez received the State Seal of Civic Engagement on his diploma in recognition of the community service work he has done.
After graduating from high school, Hernandez said that he has considered stopping the Backpacks Full of Hope event, especially as he has had to focus on working full-time; however, the support he has seen from the community has encouraged him to keep going.
In response to the distribution event, Hernandez said he sees people who are grateful and happy for the donations.
“I also get people who share their stories and experiences, and it gives me the motivation and confidence to keep doing this year by year,” Hernandez said.
By the end of 2024, Hernandez hopes to expand the Backpacks Full of Hope event into other nearby communities and create a nonprofit that helps distribute items to those in need. He also wants to advocate for a navigation center in Dinuba “so that all of our unhoused neighbors have a step-by-step plan on how to get back into society,” Hernandez said.