By John Lam
For the past four years in December, Kid CAT members have walked the tiers of San Quentin asking inmates to donate unused hygienic products or to make monetary donations to benefit homeless children in the Bay Area.
“The inspiration for the Hygiene Drive came from our former chairman, Michael Nelson, who was once a runaway teen from an abusive home,” said Mark Hensley, Kid CAT Hygiene Drive coordinator. “He was living on the streets before committing his life crime at the age of 15.”
All Kid CAT members were teenagers when they committed their life crimes. The Hygiene Drive is an opportunity to highlight the many problems faced by homeless youth, whom Hensley calls “the most vulnerable citizens in our country.”
Hensley said this year’s drive will benefit Huckleberry House in San Francisco. Huckleberry House provides a comprehensive 24-hour crisis program for families and adolescents between the ages of 11 and 17, offering counseling, medical services and emergency shelter.
The shelter was created to provide runaway youth with a safe place to stay and to help reconnect youth with their families. It has the distinction of being the oldest program in the nation for runaway and homeless youth, according to a Huckleberry House brochure.
“I was a 14-year-old runaway 34 years ago. Huckleberry saved my life,” a former Huckleberry House client named Gina is quoted as saying in the brochure. “I am now a healthy, happy, sober mom to my own beautiful 14-year-old daughter.”
Dolan Biaerd, Kid CAT volunteer and outside Hygiene Drive coordinator, said the drive has had a huge impact on homeless youth. “In the four years since we started this project, we have raised over 1,000 hygienic kits that were distributed to Compass Family Services, Larkin Street, At the Crossroads, and Homeless Youth Alliance, all of which are youth homeless shelters in San Francisco,” Biaerd said.
Kid CAT volunteer Gail Towle agreed that the drive has a significant impact. “I think what these guys are doing is absolutely fantastic,” Towle said. “The response we get from these shelters is pure gratitude.”
For many of the members of Kid CAT, the drive is an especially personal project. “The first time I ran away from home, I was around 12 years old,” said Kid CAT member Adnan Khan. “There was a huge disconnect at home, and I didn’t feel safe.”
When he was 18, Khan was kicked out of his house and was homeless for nearly a year. He slept in a car that didn’t work, and would steal or borrow hygienic products from friends, Khan said. “Having a hygiene kit would have taken away the burden of having to worry about how I looked and smelled, because although I was homeless, I was still trying to go to school and get a job,” Khan said.
Inmate Hieu Nguyen, an avid donor to the Hygiene Drive, was homeless from the age of 15 to 18. “I was once one of those kids who grew up with nothing. I used to have to steal toothpaste and deodorant from stores,” Nguyen said. “By donating, I believe I can in some way give back and reduce crime in the community.”
To get involved, you can have a family or friend make a donation to Huckleberry House at www.huckleberryyouth.org.