Willow Octera, left, and Deirdre Fournier happily sort through donated items to help those in need. Submitted

BETHEL — The Valentine’s Day Project, a four-person group that distributes donated clothing to homeless shelters across Maine on Valentine’s Day, is now expanding its territory to help more people in need. They donate filled backpacks to veterans, and stuffed drawstring bags or ziplock bags to everyone else. Inside is new clothing or items that homeless shelters need.

“So what’s cool about the backpacks is literally we see a homeless person on the street, we’ll just stop and ask them if they would like a Valentine’s backpack,” says co-founder Willow Octera. “And then we just give them a backpack. And it has a bunch of essentials that they’ll need to just kind of help them out through the cold winter months, which is, you know, it’s pretty cool. Making that connection with the people.”

In their first year, they received so much support, they were able to give away just under 1,000 packages. They went to 10 shelters that year. More and more deliveries kept pouring in, in the mail. Some 800 people joined their Facebook group.

“Crescent Park Elementary and Woodstock Elementary have some of the teachers have their students make up Valentine’s cards. And Agnes Gray. Yes. That we put in with our packages. It’s just great to have the teachers kind of bring awareness to the students and then the students with these cards,” says co-founder Deirdre Fournier.

Last year, the four in the group combined managed to go to homeless shelters in Rumford, Norway, Auburn, Lewiston, Portland and then the Maine Veterans Alliance in Portland all in one day. They would like to go to Bangor in addition as well as Augusta.

“We cover checking with shelters in advance, see what they need [with] packages specific to what they need,”says Octera. “And then we also have our regular Valentine package, which is what [we] normally is handed out … But I would say from now [November] until Valentine’s Day, and then after Christmas, we start pushing it a little more. But up until then people start [donating] definitely as soon as it gets cold. People start thinking about it.”

All of this came to be when one day, six years ago, Fournier was on Facebook and saw a post about a guy in Australia who was collecting items for the homeless.

“One of the things that he was collecting was pillows, and I thought was really cool. And it made me think about my mom who passed away four years prior to this; she was making pillowcases and donating them to local hospitals,” Fournier explains.

“Then Willow actually re-posted the same post. So we ended up connecting up and just saying, hey, you know, maybe this is something that we can both do together. It was too soon to do something for Christmas. So then we kind of both thought, hey, let’s do something for Valentine’s Day. And that’s kind of like how the Valentine’s Day project started.”

As they are donating to homeless shelters, they can only accept new items, per the requirement of the shelters. They are looking for new hats, mittens or gloves, socks, homemade Valentine’s, and hand warmers.

If you are working with a homeless shelter or affiliated with one and need items for the winter, please reach out to Fournier and Octera at [email protected] to let them know what items are needed.

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