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To help homeless, students make the 'Backet' – a backpack and jacket in one

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Bill Green/The Frederick News-Post/AP

(Read caption) From left, Joe Hutchins, communications director; Alex Smith, media and communications; Scott Johnson, design specialist; Bonnie Monnier, video editor; and Haroon Pasha, program manager – members of a Hood College student club – hold up the Backet, a combination backpack and winter jacket for homeless people. In March, the Hood team was named a regional champion and a rookie of the year in a regional competition by Enactus, a social entrepreneurship organization in Washington.

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Haroon Pasha said he learned during a hajj pilgrimage what it's like to have only what he could carry.

For Pasha, a Hood College senior graduating this month, the journey in Saudi Arabia was an important part of his Muslim faith. He said there was a period when he and his parents left behind nearly all of their possessions. He recalled staying in a valley one night.

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"In the valley, it's just dust and rocks, and you're just sleeping there, and you're among all these people," Pasha said. "And you're just like, 'OK, yesterday I had a bed. Yesterday, I had hot water. Yesterday, I had a nice car.' And now it's all gone, in, like, a matter of seconds."

That experience helped inspire Pasha's idea for a product designed for homeless people. Pasha and other members of Hood's Enactus group have developed the "Backet" — a combination backpack and jacket.

In March, the Hood team was named a regional champion and a rookie of the year in a regional competition by Enactus – a social entrepreneurship organization – in Washington, D.C.

After he returned from the hajj, Pasha said, he got an email from a relief organization with a video showing a Syrian woman and her children in a refugee camp. Thinking about his hajj experience and what those refugees would need, he focused on a jacket and a backpack, in the same way his smartphone combined functions.

Several months later, Pasha successfully pitched his idea as a project for the college's Enactus group. David Gurzick, an assistant professor of management at Hood and the Enactus group's adviser, said the club's students recognized that Pasha wasn't offering just a product concept.

"He had a passion for it and I think that motivated people as well," he said.

Pasha and senior Scott Johnson, a friend, created the first physical version of the product using items they bought from Goodwill, plus a sewing needle, tape and fishing line. Recognizing that the students needed a push to move from concept to reality, Gurzick gave them money to buy jackets and backpacks, telling them to tinker around "and see what you learn from it."

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"That was, like, the beginning of something that was really special," Pasha said.

Johnson said he initially questioned how the product would work and whether there was a market for it. With Pasha's enthusiasm, however, those questions didn't bother him.

"As he mentioned it to me, a lot of what was persuasive about it is his story ... 'cause you can identify with that, and it sounds like a good cause," he said.

Over time, the project team grew into its current 17 members, with students serving in development, research and communication roles, among others. The Backet concept developed as students joined the team. A sixth prototype was recently finished.

Joe Hutchins, a junior who has volunteered at the Frederick Rescue Mission, said he was drawn to Pasha's passion and desire to make a difference. Hutchins was given a spot on the project's development team after persistently offering ideas to improve the product.

"I was surprised that things were actually popping into mind because I've never done anything like this," he said.

Team members conducted research on homelessness, including surveys with homeless people, and met with community groups. Alex Smith, media director and communications coordinator for the project, said one person at the Frederick Community Action Agency shared that donated clothing given to the homeless can deteriorate quickly in the outdoors.

"Not only would the Backet provide the water resistance and provide warmth, but then they could layer up underneath with the clothes they already had," Smith said.

Pasha wore the fourth prototype of the product on a recent Tuesday. At first, it appeared to be a normal winter jacket. He demonstrated how the jacket could be folded into a compartment, leaving only a backpack visible. The backpack portion, which has foam padding inside, can also be used as a pillow.

In the next step of the project – for which the students raised $10,000 for startup costs – the plan is to hire four homeless people to make 50 Backets, giving them an opportunity to gain job skills and a paycheck. The students are working with the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs to bring that program to life in the fall, Pasha said. The Backets would then be handed out through community organizations.

The team is looking to develop a premium version of the Backet, which would be available for anyone to buy, Pasha said. Each purchase of a premium Backet would mean a basic version would go to a homeless person.

Mike Greenberg, public relations manager at the Frederick Rescue Mission, said he gets multiple requests a day from homeless people in the community for backpacks.

"It's their livelihood that they're carrying around in their backpack," he said.

Everyone can use a jacket and everyone can use a backpack, Greenberg said. The Backet would make it simpler for the nonprofit ministry to provide those items.

The Enactus group has achieved a lot in an academic year, Gurzick said, including developing prototypes, working with community organizations and raising money.

"What I think is really pioneering is that they've crafted the vision and the framework for the next class to follow," he said.