By Zach Hagadone
Leo Hunsaker knows what it feels like to both need — and ask for — help. The 25-year-old has in the past faced mental health challenges and for a time those struggles threatened to consume him.
“I went from being very proactive to sitting at home all the time,” he said. “I never want anybody to have to go through that.”
Despite that feeling of paralysis, Hunsaker held onto a vision of giving back to others. When he returned to Sandpoint in 2016 after some time in Boise, during which he served as vice president of Boise Pride, he recognized the wide array of local nonprofit organizations dedicated to assisting area residents in their various times of need.
“However, the issue that I ran into when I needed help was that I’d go to one organization and they’d help me with one thing; I’d go to a second organization and they’d help me with the second thing; I’d go to a third organization and they’d help me with a third thing,” he said.
What Hunsaker found missing was a one-stop organization that could address needs ranging from household supplies and grocery assistance, to help with rent and utilities, gas and transportation, medical financial assistance and clothing, among others.
On March 16 — just as the dramatic changes wrought by the coronavirus were starting to be felt in the community — Hunsaker founded Come Together North Idaho, a 501(c)3 operating under the motto, “need help, give help.”
Though not established in response to the coronavirus, CTNI couldn’t have come at a better time. At first organized as a Facebook group, Hunsaker said membership exploded to 2,100 users in its first three weeks, with local people expressing need for everything from toilet paper to diabetic strips. As of April 20, the number of users had risen to nearly 2,200. To Hunsaker’s happy surprise, the donations started to pile up, too, filling the organization’s storage facility in short order.
“That was really the lightbulb moment, when I saw that so many people were willing to give and open up their hearts to strangers in the community,” he said, pointing to one example in which a user donated a functional vacuum that, within a day, was claimed by a single mom who just moved to the area.
“No need is too small and no donation goes to waste,” he said.
Already, CTNI has served around 500 people in Boundary, Bonner and Kootenai counties, and operates with a board consisting of seven members, including Hunsaker. The organization also recently secured an office space at 120 S. Second Ave, next door to Arlo’s Ristorante. Hunsaker said CTNI is looking to fill positions including representatives for the Coeur d’Alene and Priest River/Laclede areas, an event specialist, volunteer coordinator and board members.
In five years, Hunsaker said he’d like to grow CTNI to include offices in Coeur d’Alene, Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint.
“For now, we’re running as an emergency service,” he said, which means anyone who has a need that CTNI can fill is welcome to access its services on a case-by-case basis. However, as the organization grows, it will implement income guidelines to determine eligibility — not unlike those used by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare when allocating food assistance.
Hunsaker underscored that CTNI is unaffiliated with any state agency, political or religious organizations or groups, and makes it a point to provide service regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
“The community is very diverse here,” he said, noting his experience as a board member, president and, currently, vice president of the local chapter of PFLAG.
Hunsaker added that his work with PFLAG and Boise Pride, as well as his experience as Bonner County Rodeo king in 2011, have helped prepare him for connecting with the public and managing a growing nonprofit.
“With the Boise Pride Festival, our donation revenue was over $500,000,” he said. “I’ve run pretty big nonprofits before. That’s where I’m hoping this nonprofit will go.”
Donations are being accepted at the new office space, 120 S. Second Ave., C4, and organizers ask that donors call ahead to 208-605-7723.
The most in-demand items include toilet paper, paper towels, diapers and wipes, as well as milk and eggs.
Ultimately, for Hunsaker, his organization’s mission statement, “We aim to help the unfortunates, connect the community and inspire the world,” are more than words — they’re rooted in his personal experience.
“I understand what it feels like to ask for help and a lot of the time you beat yourself down, like, ‘I don’t need this,’ and, ‘It’s embarrassing,’” he said. “This is just part of life, we all have our trials. … My thing is, I’m going to take you under my wing and shelter you from the storm.”
To learn more, visit the Facebook page CTNI-Come Together North Idaho.
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