Incarcerated give to homeless
youth of Huckleberry House
Members of San Quentin’s Kid CAT program looked like a troop of Santa Clauses as they marched across the Lower Yard on Jan. 13 carrying bulky bags of hygiene products slung over their shoulders.
The soaps, shampoos, laundry products and more were contributions from SQ residents to Kid CAT’s yearly hygiene drive for Bay Area homeless kids.
COVID-19 restrictions forced cancellation of the drive in 2020 and 2021, so even though this was the group’s ninth annual drive, it was the first since 2019.
The event’s long absence generated a pent-up desire among SQ residents to help the kids with donations, say Kid CAT members. “Kid CAT is a staple at San Quentin,” said group secretary Chase Benoit. “People have become accustomed to the drive and expect it,” he said.
The result was a bonanza of goods that exceeded the amount donated in past years. “We took care of business,” said participant Junior Ramirez. “It’s all for the kids at Huckleberry.”
Huckleberry House, in San Francisco, is the oldest program for runaway and homeless youth in the nation. Its goals are to alleviate problems of runaway and homeless youth, reunite youth with their families, empower youth to identify healthy lifestyle alternatives and develop positive decision-making.
This year’s contributions included not only in-kind, but also donations from trust accounts. The group reported that trust account donations were almost $3,700; again, an increase over prior years.
Group member Robert Kuikahi maintained a log of the giving to help get chronos for those who donated.
To drum up support for the drive, Kid CAT members worked the housing units in December and early January soliciting contributions from SQ’s incarcerated population. Some members recruited non-Kid CAT volunteers to help with the hygiene roundup.
Antoine Brown, who was not at the time a Kid CAT member, volunteered to assist the drive after hearing an appeal from one of the regulars, “I’ve got to be part of this,” he decided. “It just makes sense. It wasn’t right not to. You can’t sit around and watch.”
The contributed items were stored in lockers in the ARC building during the collection period. Then it was time to ship the goods to Huckleberry House for distribution to needy kids.
Classroom tables in the education building provided a flat space for sorting. The room was soon bustling and filled with the voices of the workers as the hygiene products spilled out of bags onto the tables. Their combined scents filled the space.
Every sort of hygiene product was there: toothpaste, toothbrushes, hand-soaps, deodorants, laundry powders, laundry bars, lotions, foot powders, shampoos and other hair-care items and more.
The workers quickly sorted the items by type and paused briefly for a photo to document the fruits of their efforts. As the sorting progressed a vigorous but friendly debate developed about which housing unit had given the most.
North Block resident Tommy Wickerd proclaimed, “North Block knocked it out of the park this year.” Ryan Pagan of West Block called Wickerd’s declaration “fake news.”
Amid the laughter that followed, Benoit argued that the Donner unit, with its relatively smaller population, provided the “most contributions per capita.”
Meanwhile, Kid CAT member Oscar Acosta showed off skills honed in his R&R job as he rapidly and expertly taped up the various cartons for shipping. With the sorting and boxing tasks done quickly, the participants restored the classroom furniture to its usual configuration and formed a circle to check in about their experiences on this year’s drive.
Kid CAT Chair Kenneth Vernon opened the check-in, thanking the group for its effort and reminding the workers of the assistance provided by their sponsor, Mikko Valdez.
Valdez in turn expressed appreciation for being part of the effort. “I’m already a teacher here. I’ve seen many of you as students. I’m excited to see you guys in this element. I’m super proud of all of you. I think it’s really cool what you do [for the kids].”
For some, the charitable effort was, in part, a means to make amends, “Making amends is a big part of my rehabilitation,” said Mike Sperling.
James Duff echoed the sentiment. “I’m happy to be part of this group — to give back to the community and to have amends,” he said.
Acosta said that newcomers to San Quentin had asked him how the group manages to send hygiene products to the kids and that those conversations had led to introducing them to Kid CAT. “It was a great step toward the future of Kid CAT,” he said. “At the end of the day we’re doing it for the kids.”
Benoit praised those who give what little they can, “Some guys say ‘All I’ve got is one bar of soap.’ That one bar of soap is going to make a difference.”
Vernon ended the check-in by expressing hope that the successful drive may help the group as it strives to return to the level of programming it enjoyed before the pandemic.
“I can’t wait to do it again,” Kuikahi said.