Before she turned 21, Lorae Bonamy hadn’t had a birthday party since she was 11.
“I just felt like, what was I celebrating?” said Bonamy, a junior public relations major. “Because what have I done for others? What have I done that is meaningful?”
Bonamy’s 21st birthday didn’t entail any late night bar escapades – instead, she spent the two months prior organizing a project called 21 Days of Love.
She asked friends and family members to donate items or money so she could compile 21 bags containing 21 items and disperse them to 21 people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia – all over the course of 21 days, from Dec. 4, her birthday, until Christmas.
“One day, I was at church, and I got this idea – well maybe the reason that all of my birthday plans are coming to a dead end is because I’m not focusing myself correctly,” Bonamy said. “So, I thought it was the perfect time to focus the attention onto someone else who needs it more than I do. So that was my idea – to give people stuff and not get anything.”
It took Bonamy six weeks to organize 21 Days of Love. She ran a Kickstarter page from Oct. 26 to Nov. 26 to fund her goal of $1,056.
On Dec. 5, the day after her birthday, Bonamy held the first event of the project – a type of kickoff benefit concert that included musicians, poets, artists and caterers. For admission to the event, which was held at the Old Pine Community Center at 401 Lombard Street, Bonamy asked for an entry fee of two items for donation.
Bonamy, who hoped that some people might bring even more, said one person brought a bag with roughly a hundred donations. The caterer, bartender and musicians all volunteered for the event, working without pay so that everything Bonamy raised could end up in the hands of those in need.
Bonamy said tables quickly filled at the event, with around 100 guests in attendance.
“I hadn’t had a birthday party in a while, and I was scared no one was going to show up,” Bonamy said. “But people showed up, and I was really humbled.”
Kristin Shields, a freshman early childhood education major, attended the kickoff benefit event and helped Bonamy put some of the care packages together.
“For her to actually organize something that can benefit a whole bunch of people and bring awareness to a major issue in our city and most cities across the country, I thought was really nice,” Shields said.
Every day after the kickoff event until Christmas day, Bonamy offered a bag of 21 items to someone experiencing homelessness in the city.
Donations included basic needs items ranging from hygiene products to gloves, hats or juice. The items filled reusable totes – many of which were donated by The Fresh Grocer.
Bonamy said one of the most important aspects of the project wasn’t to simply offer the items away and leave – it was to hold conversations with people who are often ignored.
“I’ve seen people again, and I learn their names,” Bonamy said. “One guy named James told me his whole life story. He was just talking, talking, talking. He would fill me in on what I missed over the weeks that I didn’t see him.”
The second event of 21 Days of Love, held at the Entertech Foundation in West Philadelphia on Dec. 13, was a more “intimate” educational workshop that included about 15 people, like Heather Bargeron of Project HOME, an organization that seeks to help those struggling with homelessness, poverty, mental illness or addiction. Also in attendance was a man named Reggie Young, who had experienced homelessness himself within the last two years.
The third event, held Dec. 19, included a prayer walk through downtown Philadelphia. “We ended up just kind of standing and praying at 15th and Market [streets],” Bonamy said.
“I wanted to do the fun part – like the kickoff concert, then the educational part and then the spiritual part, because [spirituality] is part of my life, and I know that it’s part of other people’s lives,” she added.
21 Days of Love unofficially concluded with a final event on Christmas day – a breakfast for those experiencing homelessness, held at Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission.
Because she thought people would spend the holiday home with their families, Bonamy was surprised when 21 people – six more people than the maximum amount of volunteers – showed up to help.
“When I first came to Temple, I saw a large population of people experiencing homelessness, and it was new to me,” Bonamy said. “When I had to think about who needed the attention more than me, it was obviously people experiencing homelessness.”
“On Christmas day, I can go back to my family at 2 [p.m.] when I’m done with [the breakfast], but where are these people going to go?” she added.
Bonamy wants 21 Days of Love to expand into a project pursued by other 21 year olds.
“It made me focus my life at an important time – I crossed over into adulthood with an awareness that life isn’t all about me, and I have other people to be considerate of,” Bonamy said. “I want to make [21 Days of Love] something other people do, and it doesn’t have to be about homelessness – it can be about animals if they care about animals.”
Shields, 18, said she would consider a project similar to 21 Days of Love for her 21st birthday. “Lorae is like the sweetest person ever, and she’s so selfless,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m selfless enough to do that, because when you think of your 21st birthday, you think of throwing a party and stuff. But I think [21 Days of Love] would be nice, and for any type of birthday.”
Lorae plans to continue working with people experiencing homelessness.
“The people who I’m asking to volunteer, I want them to know 21 Days of Love doesn’t stop after 21 days, and homelessness doesn’t stop after that either,” she added. “Even though I made a campaign for my birthday, here we are a month later, and let’s keep going.”
Claire Sasko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org