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

‘Dirty Jobs’ host features Spokane homeless activist on new web series

Rick Clark was shocked when he found out Mike Rowe – host of the smash-hit TV show “Dirty Jobs” – wanted to feature him on his popular web series “Returning the Favor.”

But he shouldn’t have been.

“Returning the Favor” features people from across the country who are devoted to giving back to their communities, and Clark has been doing just that pretty much nonstop since a chance encounter with a homeless man in Spokane in 2015.

At the time, Clark was just beginning to turn his life around after a lifelong struggle with poverty that included long stretches of living on the streets.

So when he encountered a homeless man who’d had his backpack stolen, Clark did all he could to help and encourage the man. When he got home, he reached out to his Facebook friends, asking them to donate items to replace what the man had lost.

Within 24 hours, Clark had enough supplies to fill many backpacks, which he began giving out to people who are homeless throughout the city.

And that was just the start, both for Clark and for his backpack program.

Since then, Clark has gone to college, built a better life for himself and his family and secured, in November 2018, nonprofit status for Giving Back Packs, which gives people who are homeless backpacks with essentials, including socks, toiletries and resources like bus passes and library cards.

On the latest episode of “Returning the Favor” – which was released this week on Facebook Watch – it was Clark’s turn to be on the receiving end of someone’s goodwill.

“What they did for me just reaffirmed everything that I tell people. There are always people that are going to take care of you,” Clark said. “They see you trying and they’re going to help you. That’s what Mike Rowe did for me.”

“Returning the Favor” came to Spokane to film in May, right before Clark’s graduation from Gonzaga University. Being featured on the show gave him the push he needed to take the next step after graduation, Clark said.

“It filled my tank,” he said.

With school and work, Clark said he often found taking care of himself was hard to prioritize.

“You have to self-care, because if you don’t, you’re not going to be able to help anybody,” Clark said. “I’ve been kind of tired and exhausted.”

Producers from “Returning the Favor” first approached Clark in early 2019 — but they didn’t exactly say who they were. Instead, they just said they were a production company out of New York and that they might want to feature his nonprofit.

When the film crew showed up, Clark was completely in the dark about what was actually being filmed during finals week in May at Gonzaga.

But Kate Vanskike from the Gonzaga Communications Department was in the know and helped organize the surprise.

“Certainly, we agreed right off the bat,” Vanskike said.

At a party in the McCarthey Athletic Center on Gonzaga’s campus, Clark was surprised supplies for Giving Back Packs and a check to pay off his college tuition.

“We just had a ball putting together a team of people for the event,” Vanskike said. “We called it the ‘Mystery in McCarthey.’ ”

The Gonzaga team wasn’t alone in keeping the secret from Clark. Katie Jessop, president of Giving Back Packs’ board of directors, was in on it, too.

With all the recent attention from local press and politicians on the subject of homelessness, she and other Giving Back Packs board members had some initial skepticism about filming. But that changed when they found out the interest was coming from Rowe, Jessop said.

And when Clark found out what was really happening, he was overwhelmed.

“My heart just filled up and I felt really happy, because I knew that he was there to highlight something that was good and could encourage other people,” Clark said.

Before the show premiered on Monday, Jessop and the board had a lot of work to do.

They sped up what had been their five-year plan for the organization, creating an application process to bring the program to other cities, drawing up a form allowing groups to request Clark to come speak, and planning events in Spokane that will allow the community to get more involved, Jessop said.

Even with all of the work to prepare for the organization’s newfound fame, the foundation is still all about making human connections, Jessop said.

Board member Marggy Burke felt connected to Clark after he brought positivity to her Facebook feed.

Burke retired from teaching after 40 years and was looking for something positive to do in her spare time. After learning about Giving Back Packs, she joined the board in June.

“He’s so positive,” Burke said. “It’s just really an inspiration to be around.”

Burke said she hopes the show will bring more awareness to what’s already being done to help the homeless in Spokane.

“It’s part of a solution. I think people complain a lot about homelessness, but they don’t try to do anything about it,” Burke said. “That’s where I want to be: in the positive energy, making a change.”

Clark has been that positive change in both the community and for his family.

Clark and his wife, Virginia, along with his five children, have made education a central part of their lives, he said.

For as long has Clark remembers, his family has been stuck in a cycle of poverty .But in just four years, there has been a huge change, he said.

Clark was the first in the family to graduate from college but not the last. His son graduated in May, and both his daughter and wife are attending college now.

A watch party for Clark’s episode of “Returning the Favor” will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Garland Theater. Tickets are $10, and Clark will share his behind-the-scenes experience.