In 2016, high school rising junior Hank Sanders had an inkling of an idea. He wanted to take his school’s popular culinary arts class and give the food to people experiencing homelessness. As it stood, students ate the food they cooked.
Outside Portland, Oregon’s Lincoln High School, where Sanders attends, he saw people who were sleeping on the streets. He approached his friends with his idea and they ran with it.
As with many cities across the U.S., Portland has a homelessness problem. In 2015, when the city’s homeless count was 3,801, then-Mayor Charlie Hales declared a housing crisis. There was a 9.9 percent increase in the homeless population between 2015 and 2017, according to the 2017 Point-in-Time report from Portland State University and its partners.
Sanders’ idea wasn’t going to solve the problem, but it could help meet some people’s needs.
Every week, students from Lincoln cook and serve meals to people ages 25 and under who are experiencing homelessness. Since 2016, they’ve served almost 27,000 meals and nearly 100 high school students have volunteered with the program.
CardsCook now has established itself as a nonprofit organization. They’ve expanded to include students at Jesuit and Lake Oswego high schools to serve meals in their local communities, too.
“We don’t have the paperwork down quite yet, but that is the goal for 2018-2019 school year,” Sanders says. “I think that’s a possibility. I think that will happen.”
The plan now is to launch what it calls its Homeless Solutions Incubator, which will prototype practical services and resources to reduce homelessness.
“We’re creating a solutions incubator where we are making three to four inexpensive but meaningful solutions.”
“What we’re doing with CardsCook we know is a Band-Aid solution,” Sanders says. “Serving meals is just a Band-Aid, but in order to make an actual impact that resonates with the community, we’re creating a solutions incubator where we are making three to four inexpensive but meaningful solutions.”
CardsCook received a grant from Oregon Food Bank to sit down with the people who attend their weekly food service to talk about their experiences and what they think would be a solution that would improve quality of life.
“They’re the experts on what they need,” says Alex Paskill, a fellow rising senior at Lincoln, CardsCook’s cofounder and vice president. “So, instead of having our politicians and [other] citizens decide everything, it’s cool to bring them in and then bring in what the politicians know and bring in what the citizens know and bringing in what each individual can bring to the table, and combine into this melting pot that can really benefit the community as a whole.”
In addition to making even more meals available, CardsCook plans to increase homeless people’s access to veterinary care for their pets. They’re also working with local newspapers to publish personal stories that homeless people write and for which they’ll be paid, Sanders says.
The local nonprofit Harbor of Hope, which was created to raise funds and create solutions for Portland’s homeless population, is helping to fund CardsCook’s new effort.
“Hank and the other students are great kids. The homeless are going to need people like that to support them,” Homer Williams, Harbor of Hope’s chairman, told the Portland Tribune.
As the CardsCook team looks toward the 2018-2019 school year, when Sanders and Paskill are expected to graduate, they have several goals in mind. They include starting two new chapters at other Portland high schools, raising enough money to fund two years of their solutions, and starting work on their three solutions.
They also want to ensure that CardsCook continues when their time is done at Lincoln. Paskill says it’s important for lower-level students to begin to take ownership of the programs and also make it their own.
“That’s the direction we want to be going to because we’re going to be gone, but if we go and we can say that we served X amount of people and this and that, that’s all great,” he says. “I want to be able to come back to Lincoln four years from now and see that CardsCook is still a thing, that HSI is still a thing, that there’s kids still serving, and having the same amount of pride and values of CardsCook and what we founded.”
This story was updated June 19 to correct how often the students serve meals. While some students serve meals more often than once a week, CardsCook only sponsors one weekly event.
Deonna Anderson is a freelance digital and radio reporter and a former Surdna reporting fellow for YES!