“I was homeless and a drug addict ... I lost everything.”
Tears swell in Julianna Johnson’s eyes as she tells her life
story. “I was able to get sober, pull myself out of the gutter;
I came down with a terminal illness I ended up beating
and had an epiphany that I needed to change my life.”
Inspired by her experiences, Johnson and
Brandon Kelloway, both 2011 RIT graduates in
Graphic Design, co-founded KEEP Rochester
in the fall of 2010. KEEP Rochester is a community service
organization based out of RIT, but it started as a graphic
design project. The goal of the project was to build an
organization starting with the letter “K” and design fake
posters, forms and a marketing campaign to support it. With
all the work completed, the co-founders decided to take the
final step and make their project a reality.
“KEEP isn’t an acronym. It represents ‘KEEP’ safe for
women’s shelters, ‘KEEP’ warm for homeless shelters,
‘KEEP’ nourished for food banks and kitchens and ‘KEEP’
sober for rehab centers,” Johnson explains.
After six months of researching over 80 shelters, homes
and kitchens in the Rochester area, Johnson and Kelloway
hit the streets to give back to the community. In late March,
an official RIT club was formed, and the founders decided to
move their activities to shelters for the safety of the students.
Even after graduation, their dedication has kept the club
going — today, the club has 22 dedicated members who
attend meetings, in addition to countless volunteers.
Current club president and second year Management
Information Systems student Dharin Nanavati explains:
“Meetings are important, but the goal is to help people.
The more people we have, the more people we can help.”
The club plans on expanding and cooperating with other
organizations, and is attempting to remain true to the
founders’ goals of connecting students with their community
and helping people. According to Johnson, the club looks
for shelters that are smaller and receive fewer donations. It
also looks for shelters that house children for the student
volunteers to interact with and act as role models to.
On a recent Friday night, KEEP Rochester held its first
event of the year at the Women’s Place, a battered women’s
shelter, which the group calls their home base. At the event, the
club put on bingo for the women and pumpkin painting for the
children. Hoping to expand its activities, the club also brought
in RIT’s Juggling club to entertain the children.
The women were howling with laughter as they played bingo
to win articles of clothing, which were donated to the shelter at
the end of the night. During the game, one woman won a coat —
her first and only coat for the winter. The children ran around
with hand puppets and Batman masks, smiles stretching from
ear to ear as they played with the student volunteers. After
their previous bingo night at the Woman’s Place, the shelter’s
activities director said, “there was never so much laughter in
this house, which was a huge compliment to us,” said Johnson.
In addition to putting on these events, the club also hosts
donation drives for different types of shelters and homes. The
club has collected everything from sweaters to diapers to baby
formula to coats. Last year, the club ran a Sol’s drive, where it
asked costumers to use leftover debit to buy toiletries, such as a
toothbrush or soap. The drive was such a success that the club
plans on repeating the drive at the end of the fall quarter.
“The reason why KEEP Rochester has been so successful is
because everybody is looking to help,” says Kelloway, “It’s a feel
good club and there are no obligations. When people see this
opportunity to give, it’s contagious.”
Johnson and Kelloway, as well as Nanavati and current Vice
President Wade Fuller, a second year Management Information
Systems student, are proud of the club’s accomplishments and
are looking forward to helping the Rochester community in the
coming year. As Johnson says, “I have so much passion for these
battered women because I was one; the drug addicts because I
was one; the homeless because I was one … If someone had
done [what KEEP Rochester does] for me when I was homeless,
I know I would never forget that.”