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Putting his money where the (hungry) mouth is

Lakeridge alum Travis Vanstaverren takes time outside his IT job to puts his own money and energy into feeding the homeless through his nonprofit mission, Sanctity of Hope
by: Vern Uyetake, 1987 Lakeridge graduate Travis Vanstaverren, at grill, spends a couple nights a week under the Hawthorne bridge in Portland, grilling hot dogs, for members of the homeless community who have spread the word of Vanstaverren’s work. Some begin showing up hours before the dinner time.

Seeing a man with a sign: 'Homeless: anything helps' may be a regular sight for some people who wind their cars through and over the Metro area's freeway exits and bridges every day.

But for Travis Vanstaverren, who is a 1987 Lakeridge High School alum, homelessness didn't look him in the eye until he lived in Phoenix in his 20s. And since then, Vanstaverren has always wanted to help.

Still, he couldn't help but wonder what his money might be spent on when he gave it to people he encountered. 'I would still give cash,' he said. 'I would rather give and have that not help than not give.'

He knew some people who would give Starbucks gift cards and still others who gave nothing even though they felt some prick of compassion when they saw people in need. Vanstaverren thinks he might have a solution for those people.

He is not a licensed social worker or a shelter volunteer. He is an IT employee for a PR firm who simply thought he might have a solution. Now he is a nonprofit founder.

Sanctity of Hope has minted 3,000 tokens that people can buy for $1.25 apiece to hand out to homeless people. The tokens come attached to a card with information about Sanctity of Hope and how to redeem them. Currently, the tokens are redeemable at two Portland locations of Pizza Schmizza, with more locations to come.

Vanstaverren's idea is that businesses will set their own value (At Pizza Schmizza one slice of pizza is three tokens) and can sell the tokens back for $1 to Sanctity of Hope, which will keep them in circulation as people continue to buy them.

Vanstaverren inaugurated the nonprofit by driving his RV - which was donated for the project - down to the Hawthorne Bridge on Super Bowl Sunday and doing a bit of a tailgater. He has been driving there three days a week ever since, handing out tokens and hosting a store in the motorhome that sells clothes for tokens.

Beginning this summer, he cut back to working part-time and works to spread his idea in Portland to both the homeless and potential donors.

'I'm like most people who feel bad,' said Vanstaverren, who says the issue is no more personal than any other humanitarian issue. 'It could have been another group of people that I thought of a solution for.'

Vanstaverren's solution has been tried before on a smaller scale, but the success Vanstaverren hopes for is much broader.

Sisters of the Road Café, on Northwest Sixth Avenue in Portland, has $2 meal cards that donors can buy to hand out to the homeless. The cards are only redeemable at Sisters of the Road, though. And Vanstaverren is hoping to give the homeless more autonomy by allowing them to (eventually) choose what they would like to buy with their tokens.

'For me there was a need that wasn't being filled,' he said. 'It's been tried, but it hasn't been successful.'

In spite of that, Vanstaverren isn't trying to take away donors from other nonprofits such as Union Gospel Mission, Portland Rescue Mission, Outside In or Janus Youth Project. He's attempting to add a service that isn't being offered. 'I'm not taking away from (a) demographic that gives,' he said. 'I'm going after people that want to give but don't.'

Additionally, some homeless people won't go to Union Gospel Mission or Portland Rescue Mission because of their Christian affiliation. By having a motorhome that can move to different neighborhoods, Vanstaverren says he has also become a resource to point people to other organizations that are assisting the homeless population.

So far, Vanstaverren says that the homeless people he has talked to really like the idea.

'I was afraid the homeless wouldn't want them, that they'd be upset that people were giving them tokens instead of cash,' he said. 'But it takes away the negative option. I had a guy say to me: 'The last thing I need is $20 in my pocket.' They can't get alcohol or drugs.'

Vanstaverren plans on approaching thrift stores and some of the downtown food carts to see if they'll accept the tokens. From a business perspective, the venture shouldn't cost a business anything if they don't want it to.

He's also turning to area Rotary clubs to help get the word out. There's just 'synergy' between the two, said Vanstaverren, quoting the Rotary motto: 'Service Above Self.'

He's looking for a few different types of help: 1) Businesses that would sponsor the minting of tokens (His employer, The Brick House Project, sponsored the minting of the first tokens for $1 a piece. He figures 10,000 tokens in circulation would be about right). 2) Businesses that would accept tokens, and 3) Businesses that would encourage their employees to buy tokens.

The initiative also doesn't need a whole lot of volunteer hours. A co-worker is handling public relations. A couple has agreed to drive the motorhome and serve a meal at the Hawthorne Bridge once a week. Vanstaverren is doing much of the management, as well as visiting Rotaries to spread the idea and buying back the tokens.

It's just a simple idea, and one that Vanstaverren is confident will eventually catch on with time.

So, given that the wheels are turning here in the Metro area already, he is leaving it to the volunteers here and taking the motorhome to the road beginning this fall. He is renting out his Westmoreland-area house in August, so he gave himself no other option.

The Brick House Project is being very accommodating and allowing him to continue working from the road. He'll start with Seattle and then maybe Tucson.

'I'm not going to try to control it so much. I'm going to go the way the doors open,' said Vanstaverren.

It is his goal to have Sanctity of Hope in every major city in the U.S. He'll connect with local Rotaries and organizations already helping the homeless population in each city, look for local businesses and volunteers to get involved, and then move on. He estimates he'll be gone for about two years. He'll bring his mountain bike and motorcycle to give himself some flexibility.

'I'm not forcing it,' he said. 'I don't have an agenda so as quickly as it works it works.'

For more information, visit: www.sanctityofhope.org .