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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How backpacks and a bus ride changed Rick Clark’s life

“It changed my life,” said Rick Clark as he talks about the backpack program for the homeless while being photographed at the Browne Street underpass in Spokane on Wednesday, Dec. 20. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
By Tyler Wilson For The Spokesman-Review

Big changes can be sparked by small choices. Rick Clark, 46, dropped out of high school 28 years ago. He’d been homeless and had lived on welfare.

After years of barely scraping out a living, Clark wanted something better.

“I decided a couple years ago I was done having that define me,” Clark said.

The real change in Clark’s life can be traced back to two choices he made on a single day. The first was deciding to take a bus to Spokane Community College to see about enrolling. While waiting for a bus downtown, he noticed a homeless man he had seen around the area before.

“What really drew me to him was that he was about the same age as my oldest son,” Clark said. “He was really filthy, he didn’t have shoes on his feet … I don’t know what it was other than this is a human being that is beyond broken. I can’t keep walking by him without stopping.”

Clark talked with the man and bought him some snacks, despite having about $10 to his own name at the time.

“He was super friendly, super appreciative – his eyes lit up, like he hadn’t talked to people in a while,” Clark said.

The man told him he had his backpack stolen the night before, and Clark offered to meet him the next day with a new backpack. He went online that night and asked his Facebook friends for help filling a backpack with a few basic necessities. In just a day, he had enough supplies to fill 25 backpacks.

When he gave out his first set of backpacks, he didn’t end up giving one to the man he spoke to the day before.

“He never showed up the next day like we had promised, but that’s when I realized there were a lot of other people in need,” Clark said.

Two and a half years later, Clark has distributed more than 1,500 backpacks to the area homeless through his Giving Back Packs program. The program’s Facebook page has more than 13,000 followers, and towns from all over the world have reached out to him about how to launch similar campaigns.

“I know what poverty is; I’ve been there, and when you hear some of these stories, you wouldn’t believe who they are and what they’ve been through,” Clark said.

Through helping others, Clark found his own way forward. He enrolled in Spokane Community College. His work with the homeless expanded, and he was featured on numerous local television news segments. This past fall, Clark transferred to Gonzaga University to complete his degree in communications and public relations, and he was offered a significant scholarship to do so.

“They knew who I was, and in the admission letter (it said) they’ve been waiting for me,” Clark said. “If you would have told me before that I would be going to Gonzaga, I would have just laughed until I cried.

“The more I try to bless and help other people, the more blessed I become.”

Clark is a first-generation college student, and he now has two children currently attending college as well.

“It’s weird to say it, (but I think) because of that chance encounter, my kids have broken the cycle,” he said.

Helen Wilkerson is Rick’s mother-in-law. She admits not being so sure about his journey with the Giving Back Packs program at first.

“When someone says their lives have changed by one encounter, sometimes you don’t know what to think,” Wilkerson said. “Rick has proven he is exactly what he says he is. He drops what he is doing to help someone, whether it is making sure someone has a backpack who needs it to getting folks to help him help families who need a roof over their heads.”

The backpacks Clark distributes are about half-filled with clothing, toiletries, food and other essentials, allowing space for people to fill with their own possessions. His Facebook reach has allowed Clark to expand the giving far beyond what fits in a bag.

“It’s always been just a community donating things – we put a call out for a person who had a wheelchair stolen, and we had six wheelchairs ready in like two hours, just off Facebook,” Clark said. “Social media is just huge when used correctly. We’ve had hotel rooms donated to get people off the streets … it’s building a following of people that trust you and know what you’re going to do.”

Rick’s wife works at Spokane’s Hope House, a women’s shelter and case management program. He said her work is about helping people make better long-term choices, but he hopes his backpack program can help be the spark that helps people eventually work toward those greater solutions.

“I am all about meeting people at their worst moment and giving them a little bit of hope,” Clark said. “This is a really bad time, but this is not what your life is supposed to be.”

He admits that a backpack might only be a “Band-Aid” that helps get people through the night, but he sees his degree as a path to working on larger solutions for Spokane’s homeless.

“I was born and raised here. This is my town, and I’m not leaving,” Clark said. “I’m in a position in life where I’m not trying to get the perfect job. I want to dedicate the rest of my time on this earth helping people. It gives me so much joy.”