Blessings – having parents who love and care for you.
Blessings – having a roof over your head.
Blessings – knowing when you’ll eat again.
I am blessed. I will never forget the day I realized others were not.
It was winter in 2012 and I was five years old. It was a cold day. I was with my auntie under a viaduct at lower Wacker in downtown Chicago. She had made chili for people who lived under the viaduct and brought my cousins and I with her to help hand it out. I had so many questions.
- Why were they dirty?
- Why were they hungry?
- Did they sleep outside?
- Why didn’t they have a home?
My aunt did the best she could explaining to me and my cousins that some people are just down on their luck, that some people have suffered hard times, and that some people were alone and didn’t have people to help them. This bothered me, and when I got home I told my parents we needed to do something. I didn’t think it was fair that some people were hungry, tired and without a place to go. I even suggested to them that we buy these people homes.
What happened next was critical. My parents could have patted me on the head and told me I was kind but naïve. They could have chuckled and lectured me that the world is a harsh place and that fairness rarely plays a part in life. They could have, but they didn’t. You see, I am blessed. I have terrific parents. Instead of babying or patronizing me, they asked questions. They asked me why I wanted to help. They asked me what I could do to help. They asked me how I thought I could help. They didn’t shut me down – they blessed me with conversations, lots of them!
Throughout the next three years, we talked about it. We brainstormed my ideas and talked them through at the dinner table. I remember bouncing around the house like a crazy kid calling out ideas.
- “What if…”
- “What about…”
- “Can we…”
I was too young to know my ideas weren’t realistic, but it didn’t matter. My parents were patient and they helped me explore every idea. The three years of conversations didn’t discourage me…they encouraged me. Those countless conversations made me smarter and gave me hope! The ideas began to take shape and in February of 2016, when I was eight years old, Project I Am was created.
Don’t Wait to be Great
By the time Project I Am was formed, I was old enough to realize I probably couldn’t totally solve the problem of homelessness. But I was still young enough to not worry about what I couldn’t do. This allowed me to be excited about what I could do. My motto quickly became “don’t wait to be great!” After many conversations with my parents and gramma, I settled on the idea of Blessing Bags. It was simple – bags filled with blessings. I didn’t want the bags to be filled with food because food only lasts a minute. I didn’t want the bags to have random inspirational or cutesy stuff in them because I knew that people needed the basics before they could appreciate the other things. The thought of “the basics” really hit home one day when I was walking to my mom’s office and passed a homeless man. I couldn’t help but think he needed the basics. I talked with my parents about the things that we had but that homeless people rarely get. Things like toothpaste, soap, wipes, anti-bacterial cream, socks, hand towels, etc. I thought that if I could provide those things to homeless people now, I could work my way up to giving them bigger, better things later.
My first push to create Blessing Bags came about right after Project I Am was formed in February of 2016. With the help of my parents and gramma, I invited friends and family to join me at an arcade. In exchange for their donations of basic items for the Blessing Bags and for helping stuff the bags, my mom and dad would treat them to pizza and arcade games. We filled 88 Blessing Bags that day, and even today, it was the proudest I have ever felt. I was eight years old, but I had somehow convinced people to help me help others. It was fun, it was meaningful, and it was exciting to know just how easy it was to be kind. When my grandma, parents and I later delivered those bags to the Mission Garden in Chicago, I got chills down my spine. I don’t have the words to describe how it felt to look someone in the eye, give them blessings and wish them well. Fulfilled? Excited? Proud? Inspired? It’s been four years and words still don’t describe how good it feels to make a positive difference, to act with benevolence.
To Give Without Receiving
My middle name is Naeem, which means benevolent, kind-hearted and generous. A couple of years ago, when I was trying to describe why I started Project I Am and why I continue to dedicate so much time to it, my dad mentioned that it was who I was, that Naeem meant giving without receiving. It was then that I realized that Project I Am was simply fulfilling who I was meant to be. I don’t need a better reason than that.
But trust me, I get lots of blessings in return. Every single time we drop Blessing Bags off at a shelter, and every time I personally hand one over and see a grateful smile in return, I receive my blessing. Every time I am asked to speak at a school or appear on a show or in a magazine, I receive my blessing as our donations spike, which means we can make more Blessing Bags. Every time I see or help kids and adults come together to stuff bags or to help distribute or to just work together, I receive my blessing. I know my dad says my name means to give without receiving but I can’t help it, I get blessings every time.
Mountains Moved with Media
With the help of my parents, my grandma and a great group of family and friends, Project I Am was able to put together nearly 1,500 bags in its first year. We made a website and started a few social media accounts. For the most part, everyone just pitched in their own money or their own donations and we all worked together. I was proud of our work, and thankful for everyone’s help. The following year, a small local newspaper learned about me and did a small piece. I felt proud that someone noticed and was hopeful it would raise awareness and possibly bring in some more donations. I wasn’t prepared for what came next. WGN picked up the story, then USA Today picked it up and then we heard Windy City Live wanted to meet us. Before that year was through, I had been in Huffington Post and on NBC and Fox. My small goal for Blessing Bags was blown up! We made more than 6,000 Blessing Bags!
In December of 2017, former President Obama tweeted about me. This created a crazy start to 2018! I was then recognized by LeBron James and featured on Disney and in Forbes, which resulted in more donations! I was so happy and proud, and I really began to think I could take Project I Am to the next level. In 2018, things got even crazier. I was contacted by Nike to work on an African-American project with 12 other youth from across the country. Every time one of those organizations mentioned Project I Am, our donations would spike, which meant we needed to do more Blessing Bags! We made and distributed more than 12,000 bags that year. That year, schools also started reaching out to me to speak. In exchange for donations, I spoke at their assemblies and challenged the kids and teachers to make a positive difference in their communities. For the most part, the kids and teachers were like me. They were blessed with a home, with people who loved them, with meals and snacks, etc. I challenged them to look around their communities and pay attention to who is NOT so blessed, what is NOT being done, what is NOT being taken care of, and then work toward solving that problem. I really like speaking at schools and while it terrified me at first, I began to realize there is a lot of power in motivating others.
was being interviewed in early 2019 when someone asked what my goal was for the coming New Year. I blurted out, “15,000 bags!” My mom about had a fit – that’s a lot of bags! But I thought, “Why not? Don’t wait to be great!” That year, we filled and gave 16,000 bags! Later this year, I was honored as a CNN Hero Young Wonder.
At the time, I was an 11-year-old kid from Chicago. The previous three years proved that I couldn’t move mountains on my own. But with the help of the media and the never-ending support from my grandma and parents, I could make a huge difference.
COVID Came Right on Time
So many people think COVID ruined things, but I disagree. It was March when I learned that schools were shutting down, and while some friends were pretty upset about it, I welcomed it. You see, teenagers are brutal. Whether it’s driven by hate, jealousy or cruelty, you’ll never find as many haters dissin’ you as you will in middle school.
I was in 7th grade…12 years old…and I should have been on top of the world. I had been made a Marvel Hero! I had met and been hugged by President Obama! I had been recognized by Nike! I had been featured on Cartoon Network! I had worked with the NBA! I was in the news, my Instagram had over 10K followers, my pages were blowin’ up!
But none of that matters if you don’t have blessings from people you care about and who you want to care about you. But middle schoolers? They don’t care about anything other than themselves, and they throw words around that hurt and cut deep. I was in a dark place and I was feeling really hopeless…and I was even considering giving it all up when COVID hit. That pandemic came right on time and took care of things. School closed, classes went online, being alone was the new normal, and discovering your true strengths was inevitable. My time alone forced me to return to my true blessings…my parents, my family, my home, my support and Project I Am.
COVID put an end to the fun and energetic bag stuffing days, which was a bummer, and it definitely put a damper on the donations being made. But I’m not worried – it is going to take more than a pandemic to extinguish me and Project I Am. These past few months have allowed me and my parents to regroup and talk about what we have learned. This is helping us to plan for what’s ahead. With their continued help and a few blessings from others, I am confident I can meet my goal of impacting 15,000 people in need this year and end the year on a high note.
I am vulnerable. We all are. Almost every time I see a man in the street, a family in a shelter, a kid in a line waiting for food, I think to myself, that could be me, that could be us. Thinking about folks that way makes it really personal and it’s impossible NOT to help.
I am a kid and I like to do kid things. My parents say I act like a teenager, whatever that means. I tap dance, I break dance, and I try to get good grades because it’s the right thing to do. I play basketball and dream of being in the NBA and owning an NBA team. (This, by the way, would be a great way to raise awareness about homelessness so when, not if, I am in the NBA, I will continue to help solve that problem!) I also make messes and have to clean them up, and I complain more than I should. I am a kid, and I’m not stupid – I know I don’t know a lot about business. But if you think about it, I am blessed by not being weighed down by it. I am a kid, and I have to rely upon other resources – but since I’m a kid, I don’t mind asking for help.
I am a catalyst. Whether it is through random connections with adults, media appearances or TikTok or Instagram, I am meeting people and sharing the story of Project I Am. I have worked with kids my age and younger to get something started in their neighborhoods. I have sent stuff to folks all over and had virtual stuffing parties – then they distribute their Blessing Bags in their own communities. My goal is to end homelessness, and I may have started with Blessing Bags, but I am not done. Project I Am should be an inspiration for others to do something on their own, and one day, working together, homelessness will be a thing of the past.
I am a social entrepreneur. Another blessing I received during the past few years is meeting Oleg Lee. Mr. Lee is a Russian immigrant who makes custom pillows. He designed some pillows for Project I Am to remind people they have the chance to do great things when they choose hope and helpfulness. This inspired me to design and create my own line of pillows to accompany my other passion project, Trophies by Naeem, where I make hoodies, t-shirts and hats. My thought about this is if people wear a cool shirt or something with a positive motto on it, they’re cheering to everyone they see that day. That’s a good way to spread something positive. The proceeds go directly to Project I Am so we can make even more Blessing Bags.
I am hopeful. I am hopeful that after reading this, you will be inspired to do something positive. It doesn’t have to be big; it just has to be meaningful. I think you should look around yourself and look within yourself to identify two things:
- Where is the need?
- Does it spark something in me?
When you identify something that fits both of those, I think you’re on to something. Then, all you have to do is take action, do something and don’t wait to be great!
I am blessed, and I do not think I will ever grow tired of blessing others.