Emily Raymond vividly remembers the day three years ago when she first thought of making Valentine’s gifts for local men and women experiencing homelessness. It was a snowy January evening, and she was pushing her youngest son’s stroller down a busy street, stopping every block because of the piles of snow in her way.
“At every single intersection, there were three people who stopped and helped to pick up the stroller and carry it for me,” she said. “It was a ton of help. But then I remember looking across the street and seeing a [man who appeared homeless] who had a shopping cart, who was also stuck in the snow. People were streaming past him—nobody helped him. Nobody even looked at him.”
Trapped by the snow on other side of the street, Raymond felt helpless. But the impulse to make a human connection with the man stayed with her.
Inspired by a local project to make cards for seniors and veterans that she and her three kids had participated in, Raymond launched the Valentines for the Homeless Program, which provides bags of candy, snacks, toiletries, and other items paired with a handmade Valentine from local children. Raymond’s own kids, as well as her daughter’s class at the Cambridgeport School and children from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in East Cambridge, all help make and decorate the Valentines each winter.
And since that snowy day in Central Square, Raymond says, “The project just gets bigger and bigger.” This year she and her fellow volunteers made and handed out 150 Valentine’s Day gifts at three local shelters. According to city data, there were 561 people in shelters, transitional housing, and on the streets this January, which means her project gave to more than a quarter of Cambridge’s homeless residents.
While the goody bags include donated items like gloves, hand warmers, and trail mix, Raymond views the homemade Valentines as the most significant component.
“Something handmade that had some kind of uplifting message for somebody, that’s the most important part—to make sure that people feel that they are seen and that they are loved, and someone spent time making them something,” she says.
Raymond picked Valentine’s Day partly because it was winter when she first got the idea, but also because it makes what she admits is “a cheesy holiday” into something more. She adds that February is one of the toughest months to be homeless in Cambridge because of the brutal weather.
“People think it’s just a romantic holiday … I knew it would be very unexpected to make Valentines for homeless people,” she says. “But I don’t see how Valentine’s Day has to be limited to romantic love. It can be about friendship, too.”
Donations for the goody bags come from friends and family, members of Raymond’s church, people from her kids’ schools, and even online acquaintances. This year she started an Amazon wish list for the project so far-flung friends and family could contribute.
Raymond says the project takes over her living room as donations pour in and need to be sorted and organized. “There’s boxes stacked from floor to ceiling—it’s a little crazy,” she says with a laugh.
Since the project started as a personal effort, Raymond never reached out for corporate donations, and now she’s proud of the fact that each piece of the gifts she puts together is provided by an individual donor.
“I like that it’s from the people for the people,” she says. “Every single thing put into the box is from a person who knows about the project, who has acknowledged that there are homeless [people] in this city who need help.”
This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.