Interview by Uriah Young
QFTD: Tell us about yourself. Who is Lolly Galvin?
Lolly: I'm kind of one of those people who's interested in everything. I would say, truly, I like to learn as much as I can. I live in Philly, but I love to travel. I love learning about people. I’m one of those people who really believes in community. People coming together to create community and do things together is something that's very important to me.
QFTD: Your Dignity Project, which helps bring awareness to the homelessness issue in America, has gained a lot of attention and generated momentum that was unexpected. Tell us more about the Dignity Project, how it began, and why you think so many people are joining its movement.
Lolly: It started on Periscope, which is a live streaming app. One day, I went on and I saw how many people watch my live, short broadcasts, and I thought maybe I can start a Go Fund Me campaign for a worthy cause. Then, I thought maybe I can do random acts of kindness and raise some money just to help people. My first act was taking a homeless man out for lunch. I recorded it, and I shared it with people. People really connected heavily with the first person I took out; his name is Tom. They really connected with him because he was just a very honest and interesting person. I started showing my acts of kindness on my personal social media. Before this my social media was kind of just a random articles, but then I started gearing it towards what I was doing. I think the reason people respond, in my opinion, is because many people have the heart to do this, but a lot of people do get intimidated by doing it. So, they resonate with the idea of someone doing it, and that's why I post everything I do. You know, I know there's some people who view it as, ‘Oh, look at me. I'm doing good will,’ but my view is the more people that post it, share it, and join the community, the more homeless people will get help. Lastly, I think what also resonates is when I share the story of the person who is homeless in addition to the act of helping. It's kind of a two-part connection, which is very very cool.
QFTD: When you were a child, you once gave your house number to a homeless person because you just wanted to help. Where did that compassion come from? What influenced you to care so much about people who may be unable to help themselves?
Lolly: I kind of got in trouble for giving my number away to a homeless person (laughing).
Lolly: When I was 10-years-old, I memorized Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I was just one of those very bizarre children, and my parents really didn’t know what to do with me because I floundered in school, but I had this other side of me where I didn't really understand why I needed to be there, that I wanted to be doing something different. My mindset has always been geared towards helping people and animals. I always wanted to do what I can for other people. I know I mention “connection” a lot, but that's something I preach big time. From a very young age, I've always had a way of viewing the world that I don't think is like how other people see the world. I think that there's a lot of people coming forward and viewing the world differently, and that’s what’s really cool about social media. It's nice to find a community of people like me where not everything is monetarily based, status based, or item based. To answer your question, I don't know where this side of me came from, but my parents would kill me if I didn't give them some kind of credit, for sure. (laughing)
QFTD: (smiling) You've been offering dignity bags, which contain toiletry items and snacks, to homeless men and women in Philadelphia for some time. Why did you decide to travel around the country to major cities and distribute them to their homeless population?
Lolly: I told myself if I raised $2,000 in Philadelphia, there was something there. I knew I had to trust myself, so I started doing it more and more. On April 23rd, a small group of us did the Brown Paper Bag Movement out of New York, where we all came together and we did a national give. I saw the photos from that day, and I thought there's so many people willing to help the homeless. Then I thought, why not travel around the country to help people? A big reason I got started with the idea to travel is because I got so many messages from people all around the world telling me, ‘I would love to do this. I wish I had the courage, or I wish I had the time to do this.’ Some said, ‘I don't know how to do it, or where to do it,’ so I thought, what if I go to the cities, I do it for a day and ask people to come out and join? During the journey, I would like to talk to more people. I would like to learn from more people, and I'd like to get more people involved.
QFTD: I’m sure you’re going to document the experience. Do you plan to reflect on the experiences when you return to Philly?
Lolly: The person who made my Go Fund Me video said that raw footage can make something really cool and to just keep a journal so when you get something good and you write down the time stamp, you’ll still have that. So I'm trying to learn from people and come back and make it into something, whether it be a photo book or a documentary. I'm not quite sure, but things kind of always unfold the way they need to. I’m the kind of person where I don't get tunnel vision. I'm very open to which way it goes, so we'll see what happens. We’ll definitely document everything on Instagram. I’ll be posting multiple times a day.
QFTD: You also sit down and talk to homeless people and listen to their stories. Why is that important to the Dignity Project?
Lolly: I heard a crazy statistic that the average homeless person does not hear their name for three months. That really hit me, to know they don’t hear their name spoken for that long. That’s something that’s inconceivable to most people. So, what I started doing is learning people’s names, and I noticed their reaction when I spoke their names. The Dignity Project is not just about giving. There’s a ton of people, who are amazing, who give to the homeless. There are amazing churches who coordinate efforts to give. And there’s people who pass by a homeless person and are generous enough to give money. But I wonder why can’t you sit down with that person? Why can’t you listen to them? Why can’t you get to know their stories? It makes me think of how the isolation of the homeless is a very big issue. It’s lonely for these people - very lonely.
QFTD: Out of all the homeless people you've spoken to, whose narrative stands out the most and why?
Lolly: There’s a woman in her 50’s I see often; her name is Janet. She had a house fire, and she went into a deep depression after this tragedy. She lost everything. After that, she fell into an opiate addiction and everything just spiraled. And now she’s in this place where you hit rock bottom, and it’s so hard to get back up. I’ve learned that the commonality homeless people share is that a lot of times there really is no one else there to help them. A lot of people think it’s addiction or mental illness, but I’ve met so many people on the street who have no one in their life to turn to. Say, you or I face a tragedy, we can get an outpour of help, right? Over and over again, I hear from them, “I have no one. I have nowhere to go.” A bad choice you or I make, might not put us out on the street, but someone in their situation can make that same choice and it will put them out on the street. A lot of people don’t know who people like Janet are and that really gets me.
QFTD: What do you say to the person who declares all homeless people have a choice to work and do for themselves?
Lolly: I say some do, and some don’t. I get messages like that, sporadically, but I don’t care. Your choice to work or not work is not my business. My choice is to try and make your day just a little bit better. The last people who are putting a clog in the system are homeless people. I won’t get political here, but there are people out here exploiting the system and it’s not the most vulnerable. When I hear people say things like that, I wish they would educate themselves a little more. There are some people who opt out of the system, and there are some stories that could really make you sob. What I say to people who ask me that on my social media is, ‘Have you spent a day with a homeless person?’ And they come back with, ‘Well, my aunt knew a person who had a cousin who had a brother…’ There’s always that story, right? I just say, ‘Spend a day with a homeless person, and if you still feel the same afterwards, it’s all good. I think making a sweeping statement about any group of people without spending time with them is a disservice to yourself.
QFTD: During your journey, giving out dignity bags and listening to the stories of the homeless, have you learned anything about yourself? If so, what have you learned?
Lolly: Of course! Are you kidding me?
QFTD: Then, hit me!
Lolly: Alright, I’ll hit you. In the beginning, I wondered if I should put this online. Of course I doubted. I questioned if it was okay to use my social media to do this? I second guessed myself , but then people would leave a message on social media, telling me I was doing an amazing thing. Then I would think, I don’t know. Am I? Yet, the more involved I get, I’ve learned that every single group of people have so much more in common than they are different. People ask me if I’m trying to end homelessness, and I respond of course not. I’m not going to end homelessness. But we are so much more alike than we give ourselves credit. What I’ve learned through this is that one person can make a difference. Then society twists things around - you doubt yourself, you wonder if your efforts even matter. And I’ve learned that it does because if you come from a place of purpose and passion, you will inspire other people. The more people you inspire, the more you can learn. What I’ve also learned about myself is that I have been very privileged to have a comfortable life. What I used to complain about, or what I used to let myself get down about, I’m not the same. I find much less to complain about. I feel much more fortunate. My world view has definitely changed.
QFTD: People from all over the world have been assisting your efforts. What has been the most surprising message or donation you've received since you started this project?
Lolly: Yesterday, I got a donation from Peta Kelly, a public figure from Australia who focuses on consciousness and creating your own life. I wrote her about the project, and she donated $500. That was really cool; I’ve seen many of her Youtube videos. What’s inspired me though more than a singular donation is how many people donated. There’s been over 200 people who’ve donated to the Dignity Project. People from high school whom I haven’t talked to in over 15 years. In a time when money is tight, so many people have been willing to give. Although they may not be able to go out and help the homeless themselves, if they see someone else doing it, they join in. This makes me think that people don’t get enough credit for having the kind of hearts they do. I think it’s true that we are hard-wired to give. We are hard-wired for connection. We are hard-wired to see the best in people. I think this project is bigger than homelessness. It’s a humanity thing.
QFTD: How has social media helped you along the way?
Lolly: Periscope was the beginning that made me believe that people would donate. Facebook allowed me to put my Go Fund Me up, where people who knew me and trusted me donated. Instagram connects me with complete strangers. So, for instance, I got a message recently from someone in Pakistan. Most people I talk to on there I’ve never met in real life. Instagram gives me a broader audience. They each kind of have their own role. While I am on the road, I will probably post once a day on Facebook and maybe three times a day on Instagram.
QFTD: Running a nonprofit organization is a daunting task and takes a lot of guts to even get off the ground. For someone who thinks of starting a nonprofit, what advice would you give?
Lolly: I would say do not go out with the idea of starting a nonprofit. I have a friend, Jason, who coordinated a dinner for the homeless in Philadelphia. He was able to raise $20,000. It was a one-and-done type deal. He and I had lunch one day, and we said the same thing about giving back: If you have an interest in something that you’re passionate about, use your personal social media to bounce the idea off your network. Say on there, ‘Hey, I have this idea to do ‘this’ for a group of people. What do you think?’ Get feedback from people. Listen to people. You have to be humble enough to let other people guide you. When I listened to what other people told me, I got more donations, which made me more motivated for my project. The last thing I wanted to do at that time was to start a nonprofit. I would say have passion, first. A business plan and looking for sponsors can come later, but in the beginning I would say just be open to ideas.
To see more about Lolly and the Dignity Project, click below.