I RISE candidate Jamie (left) and I RISE founder Kevin Amir Ghaffari (right) at Richmond Hostel, where Jamie is staying. Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs.

On the rise: Student organization helps homeless get back on their feet – one person at a time

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Sarah, a 57-year-old housekeeper from Richmond, was struggling to pay the rent and facing eviction from her Jackson Ward apartment. To make matters worse, the apartment had recently become infested with bedbugs.

“I had a house. I was facing eviction,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose it.”

A group of Virginia Commonwealth University students who had recently formed a nonprofit organization called I RISE, which focuses on assisting the homeless in Richmond, heard about Sarah’s predicament.

I laughed. I cried. I don’t know the words for it.

The students first paid her rent, saving her from eviction. Then, on a Saturday, they took her to get her hair done, and while she was at the salon, they replaced her furniture, bought new pillows and linens, and filled her kitchen cabinets with food.

“They told me they were going to do something to my apartment, so I left them the key. When I came back, I had my kitchen table, my bistro, my chair, new bed linen. Everything,” she said. “I laughed. I cried. I don’t know the words for it.”

Helping holistically

Kevin Amir Ghaffari, a master’s degree student in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences who received a bachelor’s degree last spring from VCU’s interdisciplinary science program, had the idea for I RISE while sitting in a lecture on community service.

“People were talking about bringing food and hygiene supplies and things like that to homeless individuals in Monroe Park. And while I am definitely a proponent of that, I knew that it’s not really a sustainable or efficient way to help these people,” Ghaffari said. “And so I started writing down in my notebook all the committees [that would be needed] and how they would work together to help individuals become self-sufficient, and how we could provide them with the opportunity and means to do so.”

Ghaffari decided there was a need in Richmond for an organization that helps homeless people in a more holistic fashion. While the organization might only be able to help a small number of candidates at a time, he thought, it could focus on meeting all of that candidate’s needs, including temporary and permanent housing, job search assistance, substance abuse and mental health counseling, transportation, and just about anything else.

“We realized we could try to have all the needs and wants of the individual fulfilled in order to get back on their feet again,” he said.

He reached out to approximately 20 of his fellow VCU students — including many he had met doing service projects in Richmond or through feeding the homeless each week at Monroe Park — and together they launched I RISE.

“From the beginning, I just wanted to avoid ever feeling as though I’m not helping another human being in the full capacity that I could,” Ghaffari said. “And I’ve found that everybody else in our organization shares that idea. We all really want to stick to our quality over quantity approach, providing full, complete, holistic services to one individual at a time.”

Ashkhan Hojati, a senior in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering and an Honors College student, was among the group’s first members.

“In the past [I’d] had many great experiences volunteering within the homeless community helping different organizations provide food for homeless individuals,” he said. “Although this was great, I always felt that there should be more action taken to impact the lives of homeless individuals on a greater scale.”

Ghaffari approached him with the idea of starting I RISE to help homeless individuals in Richmond become self-sufficient.

“After a quick discussion with Kevin I was hooked. I wanted to get involved and really use all of the resources I had to help homeless individuals in need,” Hojati said.

Within a few months, I RISE had obtained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and began to line up grants, including a community grant from the Walmart Foundation. It also was designated as the chief philanthropic recipient of the VCU student organization Emerging Health Care Leaders.

Treating the source of the problem

From left to right: VCU students Ashkhan Hojati, Daniel Mohammadi and Kevin Ghaffari, with Sarah, the first candidate to be helped by their organization, I RISE. Photo contributed by I RISE.
From left to right: VCU students Ashkhan Hojati, Daniel Mohammadi and Kevin Ghaffari, with Sarah, the first candidate to be helped by their organization, I RISE. Photo contributed by I RISE.

Sarah, I RISE’s first candidate, met the students while she, too, was volunteering with a ministry to feed the homeless in Monroe Park. The organization had been looking for a good inaugural candidate to help, and Sarah, who was rapidly approaching homelessness, was selected.

“I was about to lose my house,” she said. “One day I told Daniel [Mohammadi, I RISE’s head of candidate exploration] about it, and they were looking for a recipient. I told them, ‘Well, I might be that person as of Thursday.’”

Mohammadi, a junior forensic science major who is in the Honors College, said it has been incredible to see I RISE grow from an idea into an organization helping people, all within a few short months.

“I RISE is important to me because helping the disadvantaged has become a true passion of mine,” he said. “Additionally, what separates I RISE from other nonprofit organizations helping the homeless is that instead of alleviating some of the symptoms of homelessness, we look to treat the source of the problem.”

The I RISE students have been finding candidates largely through word-of-mouth, looking for good fits as they volunteer with other nonprofit organizations in Richmond that serve low-income or homeless individuals, or individually, such as by feeding the homeless in Monroe Park.

“We have active members go and participate in those events and they’re meeting and interacting with people who are homeless, [and look for someone] who has good character, motivation, a positive outlook and is trying to make a change in their life,” Ghaffari said. “Then we move forward and start to communicate with them.”

As part of the process, I RISE produces a video documentary on each of its candidates. The videos, produced by a team of photography and film students in VCU’s School of the Arts, are meant to show I RISE’s members and supporters the impact they’re having, while also giving the candidates an opportunity to share their stories.

“In the spirit of VCU, it’s a way to ‘make it real’ for everyone involved,” Ghaffari said.

VIDEO: VCU student-led nonprofit I RISE assists Sarah. Video by I RISE.

More than a home

In February, I RISE helped its second candidate, Terrill, who is originally from Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Richmond to follow his family. In Terrill’s video, Ghaffari introduces him to the facilities at Hostelling International’s Richmond Hostel, where I RISE paid for him to stay for the month.

Terrill, who explained he’d had problems “holding down a job and maintaining an apartment,” said he was motivated to make a change in his life.

“While he [was] housed there, for 30 days, we’re getting him employment opportunities — job interviews — for him to go to, and we’re also looking for a more permanent housing solution,” Ghaffari said.

I RISE’s most recent candidate is Jamie, a 24-year-old from Prince George County, who had basically been living out of a rental car before his church put him up temporarily in a motel.

A deacon at Jamie’s church gave Ghaffari his contact information, and after meeting with Jamie in person I RISE soon arranged for him to stay for 30 days at the Richmond hostel.

“They’re helping me with anything I need — whether I need money for food or anything, they help me out,” Jamie said recently, sitting in the hostel’s common area. “They brought me here. Gave me a place to stay. Did an interview about my personal life, which really helped me a lot because it gave me a chance to talk about my personal life.”

At a fundraising event last month, I RISE showed a clip of an interview with the group's most recent candidate, Jamie. Photo contributed by I RISE.
At a fundraising event last month, I RISE showed a clip of an interview with the group's most recent candidate, Jamie. Photo contributed by I RISE.

Jamie found himself without a permanent home after a string of hard times and tragedies, including the murder of his sister last year.

Jamie is taking an online psychology class at John Tyler Community College and hopes to eventually transfer to VCU to study psychology, with the ultimate goal of becoming a counselor. He wants to help young people who themselves are facing difficult circumstances.

“My sister was my best friend,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate that you have these types of people in society. But I feel like everything happens for a reason, so I don’t question it. But I want to find ways to make society better. That’s why I’m going into psychology. If there’s any way I can help someone who has those types of thoughts, or feels like they have no worth in life, I want to be able to counsel them and get their mind going in a different direction.”

I RISE, Jamie said, has been invaluable, as it has given him a chance to save up a bit of money from his job so he can soon afford more permanent housing.

“It’s great that [I RISE] can help people and build them up, and not expect anything in return,” he said. “I feel like that’s a great way to help out society. They’re great, great people.”

Strong student support

At a recent general meeting of I RISE, VCU students packed into University Student Commons Theater. Photo contributed by I RISE.
At a recent general meeting of I RISE, VCU students packed into University Student Commons Theater. Photo contributed by I RISE.

I Rise has no shortage of supporters. More than 200 VCU students attended a recent general body meeting of I RISE in the University Student Commons Theater.

“Not to toot my organization’s own horn, but I’ve never seen so many people come out just to an organization’s interest meeting,” Ghaffari said. “And if you looked out across the audience, the people who showed up, it was like the most diverse crowd you’ve ever seen.”

An I RISE fundraising event in the fall semester brought in more than $2,000. And in March, a Ramz 4 Hope event raised more than $1,000 for the group, drawing an estimated 200 supporters.

“The craziest thing, in my opinion, is that we are completely student-run and have been able to secure thousands in funding, even with our busy schedules,” Mohammadi said.

Many of I RISE’s founding members, including Ghaffari, Hojati, Mohammadi and Mosa Shahzada, a senior biology major, are planning to go to medical school and intend to continue helping people.

They are also planning for an expansion of I RISE to the Washington, D.C., region. “Our goal is to expand to the D.C. area by the end of 2016,” Ghaffari said. “We have a lot of connections in that area, so we want to utilize those connections to expand.”

Robert M. Tombes, Ph.D., interim executive associate dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences and a biology professor, is serving as I RISE’s faculty adviser. The students, he said, have done admirable work in fundraising, organizing and recruiting supporters among the VCU community.

“I have been impressed with how focused and genuine they have remained on this project,” he said. “Its comprehensive nature is unlike any other undergraduate project I have seen in 22 years at VCU.”

As for I RISE’s first candidate, Sarah, she feels she would almost certainly be homeless if the student organization hadn’t intervened.

“The VCU students, they’re wonderful,” she said. “I just love them. Every one of them. That’s all I can say. I start to cry when I get to talking about them.”


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