WT Interview with Jody Steinhauer, Founder and President of Bargains Group, Kits for a Cause
WT: Hi there, can you tell us who you are, and what your organization does?
Jody Steinhauer: Yes, my name is Jody Steinhauer, I am the founder and President of Bargains Group and Kits for a Cause, and the charity Engage in Change.
WT: My understanding from what I read is, you are doing good things getting water to street folks and homeless people, is this just in Toronto?
Steinhauer: For twenty-four years we have been doing Project Water. Basically, once a year, we get together corporate leaders with Trident Water, Home Depot and a bunch of banks, and we come together and we load up over two hundred homeless shelters, outreach centres and drop-in vehicles with desperately needed water and summer supplies, so that nobody dies of dehydration on our streets. We look after people at least two hours away (from Toronto) but we get calls from right across the country.
WT: We’ve done many stories on access to clean water for homeless and street folks over the years. When you do this, have you noticed that every year the demand just gets bigger and bigger?
Steinhauer: Sadly, yes. We were very fortunate we were able to pivot during covid and keep this project going in a different way. The numbers probably tripled during covid because homeless people couldn’t even walk into a restaurant. Luckily, we are past that, but the numbers every single year have gone up, sadly, not down. Every year, we say we wish we didn’t have to do this; we are just a bunch of business people with big hearts, who volunteer and do all of this, relying on the generosity of incredible donors.
This is Canada. We should not be having a problem with access to water.
WT: No. When I started WT some twenty years ago, I would walk into restaurants and ask for a free glass of water. Most places say “No, you have to order food”. I have had reporters over the years going into places, over the last couple of years before covid, they were saying, “I guess we have to” give a glass of water because there were people with serious health issues because they couldn’t get a glass of water. Do you think this should be mandated?
Steinhauer: Yes! If you go into a restaurant and ask for a glass of water, it’s free. This shouldn’t be an issue. Unfortunately, the population we are serving is nowhere near a restaurant. We see the people living out of parks, gullies, or abandoned buildings, trying to survive. Many of these, as we know, are suffering from severe mental health issues. If they are medicated, from what we are told by the health people, they only go three days without water. With the heat, nobody should ever be denied a glass of water, especially in the heat we have been having.
WT: Are the water fountains open again in GTA or has covid still shut them all down?
Steinhauer: Let me tell you, from the 24 years I have been doing this I have never, ever been told of a shelter that has great access to clean drinking water. If you can find a fountain, does it work, and is it clean enough you might actually want to put your mouth anywhere near it? So, I think accessibility is one issue, the sector I serve, the homeless, you know the homeless don’t all live downtown, they are spread out everywhere. There are no drinking fountains in most places where they are, period.
WT: Is this a once-a-year drive or is this something you could supply once a month? If Salvation Army for instance called next week, could you supply them, or is it over?
Steinhauer: Salvation Army, next week, ironically, is getting two tractor-trailer units of water and that will blanket their ministry units right across Ontario. We get calls all the time; we do one big distribution that goes out this week.
I think the great news is, the donors believe in the necessities of life. At Engage in Change, the charity, we hold two events a year, and we make them fun. We educate them on why water is so important, then we make them do the hard work and roll their sleeves up. We have over two hundred agencies and shelters show up, and the donors and the volunteers actually load up the vehicles. They are excited about doing the work, not just writing the cheque. I have been doing this for over two decades, whereas other people never did that, they just asked for money. I don’t ask for money; I say I am going to give you an experience and its going to cost you this much. So, when you frame it differently, it works. Now, it’s caught up to me, we have created a social enterprise called Kits for a Cause, talking about water twelve months of the year. When donors call us all day long and say they are looking for a way to give back, we can tell them about Kits for a Cause, or any kind of cause, whether cancer or other, water is essential for all of these people.
WT: If the national viewers of WT think this is a great idea and want to help too -- our base is very social-minded -- what do they do, open an Ottawa chapter or a Vancouver chapter, how does it work?
Steinhauer: Kits for a Cause is national and now we are even in the States, so they can just go to Kitsforacause.com and reach out to us. The great news is, since Covid especially, people’s attitudes toward kindness and the basic necessities of life and recognizing how lucky they are has really changed, which is a good thing. It’s actually happening, I am experiencing it. We are making a massive change, what’s happening now is, that people actually are looking for ways to give back and do good and volunteer, because Covid shut all that down.
Through the models that I create, I take into consideration as a businessperson, what’s the environment like, and what are businesspeople hungry for? Right now, its about keeping great employees and engaging them and making good, and showing empathy and kindness to other organizations, but then they don’t know how to do it. At Kits for a Cause, I basically matchmake them with a cause that’s important to them.
I just got off the phone with (a company) that is coming up from the states to do a huge integration, and they were talking about the Indigenous community – and we know the Indigenous communities have huge water issues. I have another group doing the breakfast clubs, where they are building lunch boxes and supplies for kids. Well, we know that people don’t have the luxury of a clean bottle of water in their lunch. I am able to integrate. We just did a cancer program for people going through chemotherapy, we know they get very dehydrated going through their program. We try and incorporate a bottle of water with every kind of kit that we do.
WT: I have been covering water around the world for some years, when I say to people “you know, you get a glass of water at the restaurant and very often people don’t touch it, I often think someone not far from this restaurant could probably use this.” Is that sort of the vibe you do every day?
Steinhauer: That’s who I am as a person, I am just constantly trying to instill that if you aren’t going to drink your water or eat your food, ask to put it in a take-out cup. Chances are you are going to walk by someone else that would really appreciate it.
WT: That’s a really good idea, we will make a point of passing this on. Thanks for this, have a nice day.