Lequoya Elliott describes herself as “the behind the scenes person” in the community.
Since she was a young girl in 1992, she’s been going into Vancouver’s homeless camps, serving people hot meals and handing out supplies.
For many years, Elliott did that work as part of her mother’s nonprofit that used to operate in Vancouver, Hands that Help and Heal Foundation. After her mother moved to Arizona, Elliott wanted to carry on that service.
“It’s always just been in my heart,” Elliott said. “If I can do it, I would give you my own pair of shoes on my feet.”
She started her own nonprofit in November 2020 and called it Changing Hearts Foundation. Once a month, she goes to homeless camps and gives out hygiene kits, sleeping bags, blankets, flashlights and whatever else she can afford to buy with the money she’s raised.
Elliott said her goal isn’t just to give people supplies but to show them that someone cares about them. It’s the concept behind her nonprofit’s name and logo — healing broken hearts.
“If you don’t have nobody in your corner, always know that you have us there,” she said.
People whom she and her mother helped during Elliott’s childhood still come up to her, Elliott said.
She remembers running into one woman a few years ago at Walmart who called out to her and her mother. Elliott didn’t remember her at first, until the woman said she and her mother had given her the dress she had on.
They had helped her years ago when she was homeless, and she was now housed and had reconnected with her children, Elliott said.
Elliott’s mother, Danielle Buford, said moments like that are what sparked her daughter to carry on the work she did as a child.
“You never know who you’re going to encounter,” Buford said. “One little thing you do can change somebody’s life.”
Elliott and her mother sat side by side, reminiscing over old stories of their work together after their friends and family finished organizing thousands of school supplies for that weekend’s back-to-school giveaway to low income families. Her mom was visiting from Arizona to help Elliott prepare for the event, where she gave away more than 200 backpacks.
The Changing Heart’s team is small — only around five people made of family and friends.
Elliott has devoted her life to this kind of work, but she still struggles with finding funds and volunteers.
Her husband often pays for the supplies, she said. Most of her fundraising is done by selling shirts or asking for donations in front of grocery stores.
Getting permission to be there can be difficult, she said. Many grocery stores have denied her request to set up a table, though she’s come back to those same stores to see Girl Scouts selling cookies, she said.
When she finds a store that will allow her to fundraise, Elliott said, she has to deal with another challenge to getting donations: harassment.
Elliott and Buford, who are Black, said they’ve been called racial slurs and scam artists by people walking by their donation table. People have asked store managers to kick them out, Elliott said.
“We get a lot of harassment, but we keep pursuing and pressing forward,” Elliott said.
Buford said she’s encouraged her daughter to not let what people say dampen her spirit.
“I implanted in my daughter — you keep that heart changed. Don’t let this society or anything make you hard,” Buford said.
Tara Verde-Trejo, a volunteer with Changing Hearts Foundation, said she hopes other nonprofits would be willing to team up so they can provide enough supplies to everyone at the camps that need it.
“If more people would just work together, could you imagine what could be done?” she asked.
Elliott is looking into hiring a grant writer to fill some of those funding gaps and hopes to get more volunteers to help fundraise and pass out goods.
Eventually, she hopes to buy apartments to help people, especially veterans, exiting homelessness.
“To let them live and be happy in a clean and beautiful environment — that’s my goal,” Elliott said.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.