Easter holds a special place in Sherri Lucero’s heart.
It was the night before Easter on March 30, 2002 when her brother Kevin O’Brien, 40, was killed in a motorcycle accident. He left behind three children and a wife.
“I can see how you can get swallowed up in the grief, but I wanted to make something good” come out of his death, Lucero, 56, tells PEOPLE. “I wanted to honor him and his life. My brother always had a heart for the homeless.”
Lucero of Aurora, Colorado created the grassroots organization Backpacks for the Homeless in the fall of 2004 with the goal of filling a backpack with necessities from toiletries to blankets and handing them out to the homeless. When the drive began, Lucero and her friends delivered 30 backpacks. This past December, they handed out more than 200 backpacks.
To date, Backpacks for the Homeless have given more than 1,250 backpacks as well as sleeping bags, clothing, shoes and hot food, with collections done all year long.
While she delivers food and items throughout the year, the big giveaway happens around the Christmas holidays.
She firmly believes people should “share your bounty, not your leftovers.”
Her family all chips in to help, including husband Rob, 57, and adult children Shannon Orama, 37, Bob Lucero, 30 and Renee Lucero, 28 and even her granddaughter Jaedyn Orama, 10, sister Terri O’Brien, 59 of Denver and her mother Lynda Queen, 83, of Colorado Springs.
“My mom can’t come any more, but she’s world class shopper, and orders online,” Lucero says.
Wendi Hodack, 55 of Aurora, CO, worked with Lucero at Thunder Ridge Middle School when Lucero’s brother was killed. She knew Lucero wanted to create a legacy for her beloved brother, and when she started collecting items, Hodack jumped in to help. But one year, Hodack decided to go with Lucero and her helpers to actually hand out the backpacks.
“She makes homemade breakfast burritos and says ‘HI’ to everyone and the next thing you know there are droves of people coming out to get the food and backpacks,” Hodack says. “What you notice right away is how grateful everyone is.”
One year, Hodack’s nephew came along and a homeless person admired his Air Jordans. The nephew took off his shoes and gave them to the man.
Another time, a homeless man did not get a coat because they didn’t have one large enough for him. He was sleeping at a friend’s house, so Hodack got a phone number for him and arranged to meet him downtown to get him a coat and shoes.
“He was so incredibly grateful and I couldn’t believe I drove to that part of town to meet a stranger,” Hodack says, laughing. “But you know, your heart is just so full and you know it’s the right thing to do and it just sort of takes over you.”
Lucero has worked for the Cherry Creek School District for 24 years as a Powerschool support specialist, and most of her boosters come from her ties to the school district. Husband Rob works at the telecommunications company CenturyLink.
“Sherri is incredibly courageous, and just starts handing these out without any advance notice,” Hodack says. “I think she’s always been a driven person and never shied away from service work. I don’t know anyone who knows her and doesn’t like her.”
One of Lucero’s volunteers worked tirelessly on the backpack assembly line, and afterward the two shared a glass of wine and some conversation. The woman, who was in her late 30s, told Lucero she had been homeless and pregnant when she was just 18.
“She talked about being homeless, scared and hungry. She said she would get canned food, but had no way of opening it, just little things like that,” Lucero says. “She cried at the table telling me, but she got out and survived it. If she hadn’t shared, I would never have know she had gone through that. You never know who has experienced homelessness in their lives.”
Lucero says we tend to get too comfortable in our lives, and allow ourselves to be too judgmental of others.
“I’ve heard people say they don’t think that person needs a backpack. That’s fine. I don’t ask for proof of homelessness. If someone wants a backpack, they can take a backpack,” Lucero says. “I give them a pep talk and a hug. Can you imagine not having someone give you a hug or tell you that they love you?”
Lucero knows first-hand about homeless because her father had experienced it in his life.
“I had an alcoholic father who was homeless a lot, a drifter,” Lucero says. “My father had a lot of things happen to him when he was a kid. You don’t always know what happens in a person’s life, so you shouldn’t judge.”
Vicky Lisi, 54 of Centennial, Colorado, who serves as the Cherry Creek School District homeless liaison, is a co-worker and friend of Lucero’s and has been involved with the backpack project for about 9 years.
“Sherri just goes up and starts talking to them and hugging them, because she genuinely cares,” Lisi says. “The biggest misconception is people think they could never end up homeless, but too many people have been hit by medical bills or get priced out of housing and don’t have cash, credit or family to get yourself a place. Before you know it, you go from a home to a car in a park.”
Lisi applauds Lucero for making a big difference in the lives of the homeless.
“They live very modestly and put both their time and their money into this, and the amount of time it takes is enormous,” Lisi says. “I have seen her actually hand over her own coat to someone who needs it. She’s a truly good person and I feel blessed to know her.”
Lucero’s dream is to one day have a residential facility for homeless, and she already has a name for it: “Kevin’s House.”
“My father had a garden, and he was so proud of that garden. It gave him confidence that he could do something positive,” Lucero says. “We need to give the homeless a purpose, whether it is gardening or fixing a car or whatever. You need to encourage a spirit to come back and they will rise up.”
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