High school student helps the homeless

Gracie McKinstry-Smith was looking for something to do her in her spare time during her last summer vacation as a high school student.

Instead of honing her gaming skills or catching up on television, she decided to collect lightly used bedding items from area hotels and donate them to People Serving People (PSP), the largest family-focused homeless shelter in the state.

With summer vacation nearing its end, McKinstry-Smith, an East Harriet resident, conservatively estimated she collected about 700 sheets, comforters and pillowcases. She even got one hotel to kick in a complimentary two-night stay for PSP’s use.

Kristina Berg, volunteer coordinator for PSP, said she’s rarely had the pleasure of working with a high school student so eager to help.

“We’re very fortunate to work with a lot of very caring volunteers, but the fact that she showed so much initiative and did it on her own was amazing,” Berg said. “It’ll have a huge impact for us.”

McKinstry-Smith, 17, said the sight of people panhandling on Minneapolis streets — particularly in the winter months — motivated her to begin the bedding drive.

“I’d see people under the Lyndale Avenue bridge when we’re driving and I’d think about how horrible it would be to be outside in Minnesota when it’s cold and have nowhere to go,” she said.

She’s starting Post Secondary Enrollment Options classes this fall at Normandale College and plans to study marketing and communication at a four-year school beginning next year, so she figured she’d probably never have more time to volunteer than this summer.

“I really wanted to do some sort of volunteer project, try and make a difference somewhere,” she said.

Friends told her about the good work PSP does with homeless families, she got in touch with Berg and shortly thereafter she was traveling from hotel to hotel, asking employees if they had any spare bedding they could donate to a good cause.

McKinstry-Smith said about one-third of the hotels she contacted were eager to give, one-third needed persuading and one-third told her they couldn’t help out.

Some, however, were willing to give more than McKinstry-Smith ever imagined. In fact, AmericInn Lodge & Suites in Shakopee, about to upgrade all of its sheets, comforters and pillowcases, forked over its entire supply of used bedding — a quantity too large to fit in any of the vehicles owned by McKinstry-Smith’s family.

“It was incredible what some hotels were willing to donate — seeing that really gave me the motivation to keep going,” she said.

PSP uses the bedding McKinstry-Smith gathered in its 99-room family homeless shelter near 3rd & Portland in Downtown East.  

Berg said PSP relies on donations for most of its supplies, as Hennepin County only provides funding for bare-bones beds and meals for guests.

In 2010, 999 homeless families received shelter at PSP, with an average stay of 38 days.

When possible, if a family leaves PSP for more permanent accommodations, staff will provide them with household items like bedding, alarm clocks and school supplies that they probably don’t own. McKinstry-Smith’s efforts will allow PSP to give bedding to more departing families, as keeping the shelter adequately supplied is a challenge in its own right.

McKinstry-Smith said she’s been thinking about careers that would allow her to combine her interest in marketing with her desire to make a difference. She’ll be taking generals this year, but she said she’s ultimately interested in doing something like public relations work for a nonprofit.

But even if her career ends up going down a different path, the bedding drive has reinforced her conviction that summer vacation can be about more than taking it easy and hanging out with friends.

“My success with this has really inspired me to think of more things to do,” she said. “I’d love to work with the homeless again, but there are so many people that need help.”

Reach Aaron Rupar at [email protected]