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Dijana Ilieva and #HashtagLunchbag are giving hope to the homeless

There are various organizations in major cities that help focus on empowering our homeless population. The idea is not a new one; in New York City alone, the number of those without a home surpassed 62,000 people as of March 2018.

Support for our homeless brothers and sisters is prevalent in many institutions, with focus on helping feed, clothe, and house those who are less fortunate. One of those movements that transcend just one community and is affecting lives all over the world is #HashtagLunchbag.

Starting out in Los Angeles back in 2012, founder Ajay Relan decided he wanted to use his entrepreneurial skills to give back to his community, with the intent of improving his own mental and emotional intelligence in the process.

Working out of an apartment, he and a group of friends managed to prepare and distribute 100 lunches to the needy. To document their experience, they jokingly used the hashtag #HashtagLunchbag and didn’t think too much of it. Little did they know that in a few years, they’d be in 150 cities affecting thousands of lives.

By the following month, the numbers of volunteers doubled, as they were being flooded with potential affiliates who also wanted in on the movement. One of those people was Dijana Ilieva who would soon start #HashtagLunchbag’s NYC chapter.

Shortly after Ajay started the original wave in Skid Row, Los Angeles, Dijana, flew out with her younger brothers for the first meeting. She got started on building out the movement in NYC and in an interview with Kulture Hub, Dijana explained,

“It was only 20 or so of us and the goal was to feed 100 people.”

After successfully reaching their first one hundred, their numbers began growing exponentially, expanding all over the United States.

“Today, we are feeding close to 1,000 every month.”

It seems as if Dijana Ilieva had been a soldier from the day she arrived. Born during the Balkan War, her family escaped from the budding nationalism of Yugoslavia to the expressive and open world of Brooklyn.

She recalls her childhood as anything but; growing up fast in order to help her family in anyway she could.

“We were 3 families living in a one bedroom. My mom was a nurse and my uncles were in the locksmith business. I pretty much raised my younger cousins. Family is so important to us, it’s not like anyone asked us to be built-in babysitters. At an age as young as 6, I had a baby on my hip. We couldn’t do anything without our little cousins. I think our parents thought this was to keep us from doing anything too crazy.”

She was raised down in Brooklyn. #tbt

A post shared by Dijana (@pulpmyfiction) on

As a child, Dijana spent a lot of time with her grandmother and watched as her mother balanced two jobs to support her family. Her grandmother took care of the household, doing everything she could to keep her grandchildren content.

“She was the most selfless person I know. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was cooked for 3 families before noon every day. She picked me up from school, played lottery, and spent all her time with us while our parents were trying to find their way in NYC. I think I got my giving back gene from her.”

Dijana’s activism is matched with her entrepreneurial skills. Her background in business consists of Brand Management and Consultation, opening up connections and sponsorships with a couple of noteworthy names; Twitter, Barneys, Beats, and Don Julio-Diageo, to name a few.

A short (red carpet) story. #30Under30 #LuckIsEarned

A post shared by Dijana (@pulpmyfiction) on

What sets #HashtagLunchbag apart from movements like it is the focus on spiritual awakening. With every lunch packed and personally prepared comes a note of encouragement, love, or both.

Partnered with her longtime friend and co-founder Kristen Andersen, the NYC chapter was soon alive and thriving under the same basis as Los Angeles; a collective of friendly activists who ventured to make a change with the only resources they had.

“Every month is a different experience, depending on the sponsors and people that come out, but the objective is the same: to make the lunch bags with a sandwich, a fruit, a cookie, water and a love note. We then distribute the lunch bags to parks, train stations, and different shelters throughout the city. One homeless man told us the other day that he saves all of our notes and glues them inside a wall at one of the shelters. That’s what we do it for. To show them that things will get better and we are here to help them get there, even if just with a meal to get them through the day or a note to show them that someone cares.”

#HashtagLunchbag originally started off as a coastal movement but has since gained traction worldwide. Joining or hosting a movement is as easy as a few clicks on your computer screen.

“We’ve had hashtags in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Australia. We feed and feel love worldwide.”

#HashtagLunchbag does much more than just give free meals. The activism begins in the heart of those who are involved; discussions, inspiration, giving and sharing, all of these things contribute to the core of what makes #HashtagLunchbag so different.

Anyone can become involved, regardless of whether or not they’ve been active in their community before. For those looking to start, Dijana’s advice would be to begin by simply giving what you have to offer.

Dijana explained:

“My only advice to future activists is to give if you have. You don’t need to be loud to give back, I know it looks intimidating and it definitely does take a special person to lead a movement, but everyone that shows up every month is an activist to me. Even the people that walk in, sit at the note table, never say a word and leave. I really appreciate those people, because I know they’re there for the right reason. At the same time, even the ones that come for an IG post, or parole hours, or community service hours. Whatever is bringing you there, is appreciated, both by us and the people that eat these meals.”

Activism starts in your heart. No matter how little you’re able to provide, even if just voicing your ideas, anyone can be part of or begin a movement.

If you’re looking to get involved in #HastagLunchbag, visit their website to find out what cities are hosting a meeting near you.