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About the Dignity Project

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Lolly Gavin’s fundraiser started with a modest goal of $500.  She’s now raised over $12,000, and donations are still coming in every day.  Be part of her movement.

Dignity For All

Lolly Galvin harnesses the power of social media to bring supplies, attention and change to the homeless

Lolly Galvin harnesses the power of social media to bring supplies, attention and change to the homeless

Lolly Galvin will talk to anyone—the trash collector, the cab driver, the store clerk, you name it. But until the age of 31, she’d never talked to one group of people—the homeless. It wasn’t a conscious or intentional act. It was just…life.

Photo courtesy of Lolly Galvin (Dignity Project), via @therealhumanist on Instagram
Photo: Lolly Galvin, via Instagram

After graduating from LaSalle, the Atlantic City native went on to run a small chain of retail stores. She worked 70 hours a week without time for much else. On any given day, she headed to one of her stores, dropping a dollar or two to a homeless person along the way. But she never stopped.

That unexpectedly changed this past January, when a series of events led Galvin to meet Tom, a homeless man who inspired The Dignity Project, Galvin’s mission to provide those living on the street with needed supplies—and a chance to tell their stories to the world. Six months later, Galvin is on a nationwide Dignity Tour, using the power of social media to raise awareness of not just the issue of homelessness, but the real people who are living it.

“They are extremely intelligent, shockingly so, and interesting,” Galvin says, “more interesting than a lot of people I meet who are not homeless.”

Galvin’s circuitous route to The Dignity Project began in her living room one January evening, when she discovered Periscope, a social media platform that allowed users to broadcast live on the Internet. She held a 10-minute broadcast, simply introducing herself to those who joined, and carried on a casual conversation. Before she knew it, nearly 700 strangers had tuned in.

“For me it’s not just the giving, it’s spending the time and other people seeing me doing it,” says Galvin. “That also breaks down the barrier because it shows that maybe it isn’t so crazy to talk to these people.”

Right away, Galvin recognized the power of the engaging platform—and realized it could be used for good. She set up a $500 GoFundme campaign to raise money to do random acts of kindness for $50 each, and broadcast them live on Periscope—like a sort of do-gooder reality show. She reached the goal in three days.

As her first act of kindness, Galvin decided to focus on an issue all too familiar to Philadelphians—homelessness—by taking a homeless man out to lunch. She wandered Center City, trusting that her intuition would lead her to the person she was meant to help. She found Tom near the corner of Broad and Chestnut, seated on the ground, head down, holding a “HELP” sign and looking defeated. Galvin offered him lunch, and with his permission, broadcasted their conversation from that moment on.

“It was cool because on the app people got to ask him questions about his life,” said Galvin. “He was very open, he was very friendly, and he gave some answers that you and I might not have thought about.”

After they finished their $10 lunch, Galvin gave Tom the remaining $40, and moved on to other acts of kindness, like throwing a Valentine’s Day party at a nursing home. But her followers—which between Facebook and Instagram is now well over 5,500—continued to ask about Tom. Galvin never saw him again, but she couldn’t stop thinking about him either—or the other homeless people she passed on the sidewalk every day.

Throughout her random acts of kindness campaign, she made the transition from Periscope to Instagram, where she saw others posting images of themselves serving the homeless paper bag lunches. This inspired Galvin to create what she called “Dignity Bags,” which are filled with essential toiletries and seasonally appropriate items like hand warmers, socks and gloves. (She hasn’t kept track of how many bags she’s distributed, but her apartment—filled with boxes and bags of toiletries—is an indication of her dedication.) Just as importantly, each bag comes with a conversation.

Photo: Lolly Galvin (Dignity Project) via Instagram
Photo: Lolly Galvin via Instagram

“For me it’s not just the giving, it’s spending the time and other people seeing me doing it,” says Galvin. “That also breaks down the barrier because it shows that maybe it isn’t so crazy to talk to these people.”

Galvin’s mission is simple. But its impact has gone way beyond what even Galvin expected. Her stories on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media have touched people across the country. One of those people, Bobby Dee, was especially moved. A Philadelphia native who relocated home from Massachusetts after a tough divorce 8 years ago, Dee became homeless soon after. Now remarried and living in Texas, Dee donated to Dignity Project from afar, and then flew out in April to help Galvin distribute bags.

“There are so many people in Philadelphia that help,” Dee says. “By people helping me out it got me back on my feet to where I’m living a pretty good lifestyle. People like Lolly make you want to better yourself.”

A couple months into the project, some of Galvin’s other followers from around the country asked her to bring her Dignity Project to their cities. So she went back to GoFundMe to raise $2,000 for a 12-city “Dignity Tour,” a figure that, for her, would serve as a sign to move forward with the idea. Once again, she quickly achieved that amount, prompting her to increase her fundraising goal to $10,000. Thanks to the help of 227 people, she reached that goal in three months, and has again exceeded it.

“My followers have helped me shape this into what I do,” says Galvin “Their interest keeps me going.”

Galvin’s supporters have fueled the evolution of her project in other ways, too. For example, around the $5,000 mark of the fundraising campaign, some donors advised her to consider becoming a non-profit to manage the amount of money that she was raising. The Dignity Project became a 501(c)(3) in April. This came right as City Council held the first public hearing on youth homelessness, and just in time for Blofish, the world’s first gender neutral clothing company, to discover Galvin’s project and announce that the non-profit will receive 10% of every purchase this month.

The woman who once lived comfortably and enjoyed working 70 hour weeks, now lives in an apartment filled to the brim with donations for the homeless and runs a non-profit that she never planned to start. To say her priorities have shifted is an understatement.

“It’s changed me completely,” says Galvin. “My mindset has shifted towards a great place of gratitude. I don’t allow myself to complain or view things in the way I did because of the stories that I hear.”

The woman who once lived comfortably and enjoyed working 70 hour weeks, now lives in an apartment filled to the brim with donations for the homeless and runs a non-profit that she never planned to start. To say her priorities have shifted is an understatement.

Galvin’s Dignity Tour kicked off May 10th in Philly, and will end with her final stop in New York on June 4th. She’s currently living out of an Escape Camper Van packed with supplies, and meeting volunteers in each city who help her fill and distribute Dignity Bags. “This has been the craziest thing; every day it is pure, pure work,” she says. “I have no idea how this going to pan out.”

What Galvin does know is that when she returns home to Philadelphia, she’s going to pick up where she left off, but with more education and perspective. She hopes to bring some of the ideas that other cities are using to address homelessness to Philadelphia. And since she started recording her experiences on the tour, she’s developed an interest in using film to tell the stories of the homeless.

She’ll also keep an eye out for Tom, the man whose story first started her on this path—and who she has never seen again. As with so much on this journey, Galvin is trusting her instinct that says it’ll happen one day.

“Tom had such an effect on me and other people,” she says. “It’s unusual to not see someone for so long, so part of it does worry me. But I think he’s alright, and I’ll catch up with him some day.”

Photo Header: Courtesy of Lolly Galvin via Instagram

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