The Bautista Project is one of five nonprofit organizations SUCCESS magazine is spotlighting during the week of Giving Tuesday. Early in November, we posted on our social media accounts asking followers to nominate a charity they felt was making an impact in their communities. We tallied up the nominations and are pleased to highlight the hard work these organizations are doing behind the scenes to better the lives of others.
The Bautista Project knows how to help the homeless. Its founder, Marla Bautista, found herself homeless at the age of 18, and vowed that she would help others in her situation when she got back on her feet. Years later, she founded The Bautista Project, a Florida-based 501(c)(3) providing essentials and educational resources to help homeless members of the community, including veterans, reintegrate.
A rough start
By the time Marla Bautista was 10 years old, she had lost both of her parents. Her next guardian was abusive, and when she was 18, Bautista found herself homeless. “I had no money, I had no car, no job and no knowledge on how to be successful in the world,” she recalls. She promised herself that if she ever overcame homelessness, she would spend her life giving back to people in need.
Eventually, Bautista got back on her feet, and when she was working as an executive administrative assistant at a hotel, she met her husband who was in the Army Reserve. The two came from different backgrounds, but her husband has always supported Bautista’s wish to help others. They started by making sandwiches and handing them out, along with small hygienic items, to people in their neighborhood who lived on the street.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about unhoused community members based on what we see on TV, based on the clips that we see in the news,” Bautista says. “But we don’t know their whole story.” Even the couple’s young children joined in after befriending those in the community who needed their help.
Taking their charity on the road
Due to her husband’s service in the reserves, Bautista and her family regularly relocated and traveled from Denver to Hawaii to Germany to Colorado and New York. No matter where they were, the family handed out sandwiches and hygiene bags to people in need.
When the couple ended up in New York, they asked friends on Facebook for jacket donations because it was impossible to survive on the street due to the extremely low temperatures. As Bautista gathered more and more donations, friends encouraged her to make the program official. In 2018, she did, and The Bautista Project was incorporated in 2020.
But it wasn’t long after founding the nonprofit that Bautista literally stumbled upon a new way to give back: She tripped over a bin of her husband’s old military uniforms in the garage. Knowing he would have to toss them and mourning a waste of good material, she had the idea to start making blankets out of military uniforms.
When Bautista was living on the streets, the only thing she had—that no one could take away—was a teddy bear named Cookie that her mother gave her. Bautista hoped to provide the same comfort and sense of belonging to those within the foster care system by giving them the military uniform blankets. This was the start of Belonging Blankets.
“We believe in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Bautista says. “We like to start at the bottom and meet people where they’re at. They have no shower, they have no food, they have no sense of security. One of our big keys to success is creating a sense of belonging within our communities.”
The Belonging Blanket program started in New York when Bautista’s family began receiving uniforms from all over the world. When they moved to Tampa, Florida, and continued the tradition, the program received a lot of media attention.
Getting help and giving back
“All of a sudden, every seamstress came out and began to help us sew. They saved our lives,” Bautista says. “On every Wednesday night, from August to December, we have sewing circles where we make the blankets.” Bautista doesn’t have any sewing skills herself, but five years later, she’s still cutting and helping out. Now they make blankets and pillows and pair them with duffel bags so kids have belongings and a place to store them when they travel from home to home.
“I have a friend who works with kids in the court system who are going through the Child Protective Services system, and last year she took 30 blankets and pillows for those kids,” Bautista says. “She gave two of the boys a blanket and a pillow, and they laid down in her office on the couch. When their session was over, they tried to give them back to her, and they were so stoked to learn that they could keep them. My friend started crying.”
The Bautista Project branches out
Aside from Belonging Blankets, The Bautista Project provides hygiene kits to local shelters under their Belonging Box program. It also has a food pantry that, since last year, has provided more than 100,000 pounds of food for military families facing food insecurity. The organization gives out snack packs with shelf-stable food to unhoused community members so they can eat at any time.
The organization has since implemented additional programs, including You Belong, which provides academic resources to unhoused community members, and VetPoint 100, which offers services to veteran and military-connected families who are either unhoused or facing food insecurity.
The Bautista Project’s main goal with these programs? To prevent homelessness before it happens.
Photo courtesy of The Bautista Project.
Jaclyn Greenberg writes about her experiences parenting as well as challenges related to accessibility and inclusion. She has written for The New York Times, CNN, Parents, Wired and other publications. Jaclyn is currently querying a memoir about advocacy and finding her voice.You can connect with her on Twitter at jl_greenberg or Instagram at JaclynlGreenberg.