Hydrating the Homeless

How one woman’s social responsibility initiative is quenching the thirst of thousands.

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As the CEO of Bargains Group, a wholesaler of T-shirts and other promotional for not-for-profits, Jody Steinhauer spends much of her time helping underprivileged Canadians. In 2000, she launched the company’s first corporate social responsibility (CSR) program, Project Winter Survival, which provides cold-weather survival kits to Toronto’s homeless.

She chose to focus on winter because, naturally, she thought the snowy months were the hardest for the homeless, but she was surprised to learn from an outreach nurse that more homeless people die on Toronto’s streets from dehydration in the hot, humid summer months than from hypothermia during the winter. “It’s a huge problem,” she says.

That same year, after hearing about the problems with heat, Steinhauer launched Project Water, a CSR initiative that gives nearly 350,000 water bottles a year to more than 160 social-service agencies across the Greater Toronto Area. Those drinks are then distributed to homeless residents throughout the summer. While her winter program leverages her own suppliers, for this one she had to seek help from companies she didn’t know.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment knowing we can save thousands of people from potentially dying with… a bottle of water.”

Fortunately, many big names delivered. Over the last six years Nestlé Waters Canada has donated $110,000 worth of bottled water – that’s 644,064 bottles – and Canada Cartage has provided transportation and warehousing services. Target, the Home Depot and other big corporations have also donated funds to the cause. “There’s a real sense of accomplishment knowing we can save thousands of people from potentially dying with something as simple as a bottle of water,” says Steinhauer.

While gathering water takes months of planning and hundreds of volunteers, all of it is distributed to the agencies on a single day, typically in the first week of July. Since it started, Project Water has distributed more than 1.5 million bottles of water.

It’s been quite the feat growing this small project into a major CSR program, but Steinhauer is taking a step back so she can continue raising the bar. In 2013, Project Water became part of Engage and Change, a national registered charity. She doesn’t head up the charity itself, but Steinhauer is an integral part of the growth of both her winter and summer projects. “I’m very proud of what we’ve created,” she says. “Now we want the projects to go national.”

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