Thousands of at-risk Metro Vancouver residents will have warmer sleeps in the coming days thanks to the effort of one 14-year-old boy from West Vancouver.
Zac Weinberg is the founder and driving force behind the Zacpac Project, an effort to hand out a waterproof, 30-litre bag full of useful supplies to those in need. This is actually the second time Weinberg has organized such an effort, following a 2020 campaign that saw him put together 2,200 20-litre bags to be handed to homeless people. That campaign was a success, wrapping up just days before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the province into crisis mode.
This year, however, Weinberg wanted to make a bigger impact, and so he focused his efforts on one particular item that could make a huge difference in an at-risk person’s life: a waterproof sleeping bag.
And he’s going to give out 3,000 of them.
Weinberg was born in Winnipeg and moved with his family to the Vancouver area five years ago. The idea for Zacpacs first came to him when he and his parents became aware of the reality of life for homeless people on the Downtown Eastside.
“How is it that in this beautiful city in a First World country, that this is such an apparent, massive issue?” Weinberg said in an interview with the North Shore News. “Especially if you take a look at the Downtown Eastside where it's most prevalent, how it’s street upon street densely packed with people living on the streets. I couldn't believe it.”
That’s where the Zacpac idea was born.
“I wanted to do something about it,” he said. “I hope in some small way it sends a message that there are people out there who care.”
Weinberg, a Grade 8 student at West Vancouver’s Collingwood School, has had the support of his parents, Martin and Michelle Weinberg, for the Zacpac Project, as well as the family’s Weinberg Foundation, but he was the brains behind the campaign and has put in countless hours making it happen, said Michelle. Zac even spoke in front of 19,000 people at a We Day celebration at Rogers Arena to drum up support for the first campaign when he was only in Grade 6. It was an inspiring experience, he said.
“I feel like lots of people get nervous in front of a crowd,” Zac said. “I revel in it, because first of all, I can’t let nervousness stop me from raising money for charity. That’s not an excuse in my mind. And second, I really felt great because they were cheering me on, they were excited. I felt like this was a crowd of people that would really connect and listen to the message that I was sharing, and it felt great.”
The first Zacpac campaign started with a simple question to workers at Coast Mental Health: what items would make the biggest impact for people living rough. The answer was a toothbrush and socks. But the more he and his family dived into the project, the more they realized that they could bundle those items together with several other things – toques, gloves, water bottles, granola bars, rain ponchos – and put them in a sturdy, reusable, waterproof bag.
“Zac went down there and interviewed the outreach workers and that's where that list of essential items came from,” said Michelle. They put together 2,200 packs full of supplies that were then handed out to community agencies such as Covenant House Vancouver, the Salvation Army, and the Vancouver Police Department, who then passed them on to people in need. Zac also got to hand out a few bags on his own during an event held at Vancouver’s Crab Park.
“The irony of this whole thing is that Zac is underage … and none of these shelters would allow him to volunteer – effectively he’s not allowed in any of those places,” said Michelle. “And so last time, one of the coolest experiences was going to the Downtown Eastside and handing it out.”
Connecting with the people who would be using the Zacpac was a special moment, said Zac.
“When you’re giving it out, you see the personal impact,” he said.
For the second campaign, Zac and his family have focused on sleeping bags as a big ticket item, along with hand sanitizer and a non-perishable food item donated by Nature’s Path.
Through both Zacpac campaigns, Zac has gone on visits to business and banks to ask for donations of money or supplies for the packs, while also tapping friends and family members for donations, with RBC and the Weinberg Foundation on as major donors.
The project is making a difference, said Allison Briggs, development officer at Covenant House Vancouver.
"Covenant House Vancouver is incredibly grateful to Zac for his support for young people experiencing homeless through his Zacpacs,” she told the North Shore News. “The pandemic, housing and opioid crises continue to have a profound impact on vulnerable young people. Thank you, Zac, for your passion and all you are doing to help those experiencing homelessness in our community."
Zac and his family have done all the hard work of collecting the supplies for the latest campaign, and now he’s looking for some help to fill the packs before they are picked up for distribution by partner agencies from across the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley.
The Zacpacs will be assembled from approximately 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, April 12 and Wednesday, April 13 at the Paradox Hotel in Vancouver. Volunteers interested in helping fill Zacpacs can text Michelle at 1-204-294-4585 or sign up on the Facebook page @zacpacproject.
“We’re hoping to get as many volunteers as possible because it’s even more Zacpacs, and we have even [fewer] volunteers than last time so far,” said Zac. “We’re looking for more.”
Tax-deductible donations can also be made through the Weinberg Foundation's website. The foundation is a registered charity.