Cameron Oakley Brigade

Cameron Oakley’s Blessing Bag Brigade

A passion stems from our experiences, our wishes, and our skills. For health studies sophomore Cameron Oakley, her passion for helping the homeless has led her to the path of directing Blessing Bag Brigade NJ, a nonprofit organization that distributes blessing bags to the homeless.

A project of compassion and humanitarianism, Blessing Bag Brigade makes a difference in the lives of the homeless who can’t obtain basic necessities.

“A blessing bag is a bag that contains essential items for the homeless such as socks, soap, shampoo, snacks, lotion, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and miscellaneous items people will donate such as combs, hair ties, tissues, and wipes,” Oakley explained.

Oakley, along with the organization’s staff and volunteers, distributes blessing bags around Monmouth, Ocean, and Middlesex counties, as well as New York City a few Wednesday nights a month.

“We drop off to places like soup kitchens, churches, and The Center in Asbury Park, which is an AIDS center. We drop off anywhere; if they need our help and we can get to them, we’ll help them,” she said.

As the director of Blessing Bag Brigade, Oakley has watched the organization grow as a result of the power of the community. Beginning in December 2016 as a holiday project, donations kept materializing, resulting in an expansion from 150 bags distributed a week to 1500 bags a week almost two years later. The exponential growth of the organization leaves lasting impressions on Oakley, the volunteers who help out, and especially those who receive the bags.

“I have always had a passion to help people, but I never really had a way until I heard about Blessing Bag,” she said.

“As a health studies student, I want to go into medicine to continue helping people, but I’d also love to get my master’s in public health to change healthcare policy and help make it easier for someone who is homeless to get off the streets. I like to tie in what I’m studying with continuing to help people no matter what field it’s in,” Oakley continued.

The organization has made a lasting impression on Monmouth University when the MU Professional Nursing Association collected donations and made blessing bags to distribute, according to Beth Gough, a specialist professor of nursing. Kevin Garrison, founder of Blessing Bag Brigade NJ, has been a guest speaker in her Community Nursing Class.

“He speaks about his volunteer work and specifically about his interactions helping out the homeless in NYC and in our community. Learning about this vulnerable population is really important for nursing students as the focus on Community Nursing increases,” Gough said.

Oakley encourages her classmates, professors, and fellow students to get involved in Blessing Bag Brigade. Whether you’re a nursing or health studies student looking for insight on community health, or someone who has a passion for helping the community, you can get involved by volunteering at monthly meetings to pack supplies into bags, attending fundraisers, or dropping off supplies at set locations.

Blessing Bag Brigade has about fifteen drop-off locations around Monmouth, Ocean, and Middlesex County. The closest one to the university being Shore Cake Supply in Ocean Township.

Shore Cake Supply is also hosting a fundraiser for Blessing Bag Brigade on Oct. 28 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. A fundraiser will also be held at Panera Bread on Route 35 in Middletown on Nov. 14 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

“We try to keep it fun and casual and have an open dialogue about homelessness and what that means and why we want to help,” Oakley added.

Diana Sambevski, a sophomore biology student, recently volunteered her time to assemble blessing bags prior to distribution. “As soon as I walked in I could tell it was all about love and helping others,” she remarked. “It was refreshing to see a whole community at one place with such positive intentions.”

“When you bring the bags to a shelter or a soup kitchen and you see firsthand the way they help people, it just changes your outlook on everything,” Oakley concluded. “The options we have are different than the options these less fortunate people have, and [the experience] just changes your outlook on everything. It makes you think more about your everyday life.”

Nothing is as fulfilling and heartwarming for Oakley as distributing the bags and watching the homeless community tear up from receiving something as simple as socks or lotion. The blessing bags have the power to give the homeless hope for the future while allowing them to come together as a community to help one another as well. It’s a wholesome experience that will stay imprinted on her heart forever.

The quickest way to get involved is with a subscription to the mailing list on their website and a follow of their Twitter (@blessingbagnj), Instagram (@blessing_bag_nj) and Facebook for further information about drop-off locations, fundraisers, and volunteer opportunities.

PHOTO TAKEN by Melissa Badamo