Chase Hansen was 4 years old when he first noticed a homeless person while he was shopping at an outdoor mall in Salt Lake City with his dad.
“Chase looked at me and said, ‘Dad, who are these people? Why don’t they have a place to stay?’” recalled John Hansen, 44. “After I explained that they had run into hard times and were homeless, I knew that we were looking at an educational opportunity. My son wanted to help them.”
Hansen, a former sales and marketing business owner who had recently divorced, decided to spend his weekends with Chase doing something beyond playing video games and tossing around a football. The father and son persuaded a local Jamba Juice store to donate more than a hundred smoothies, which they then handed out to homeless people in a Salt Lake City park.
From there, they came up with another idea, said Chase, now 10.
“I wanted a way to get to know people better,” he said. “So me and my dad decided to start taking some of the homeless people we’d met out to lunch.”
Once or twice a week, over cheeseburgers and fries, soup and sandwiches or tacos, the Hansens sit across from their new acquaintances in a booth and share a meal while starting a conversation.
“I would ask them where they were from, what their hobbies were, stuff like that,” said Chase, a fifth-grader who lives with his mom during the school week. “And sometimes they’d share the story of how they became homeless.”
“A lot of people walk right past homeless people and don’t see the person,” he said. “I know now that they’re people just like us. They want to make a connection and not feel so alone in the world.”
More than 150 lunches later, John Hansen and his son now run a self-funded charity called Project Empathy, hoping to inspire others to create friendships with homeless people in their own neighborhoods and help line them up with resources and agencies that can help with housing, employment and alcohol or drug addiction.
What started as a way to spend time together and extend a hand to those less fortunate has turned into a passion for both, said Hansen, who lives in Taylorsville, about 12 miles south of Salt Lake City.
“Chase and I realized that the country needed an army of people to practice empathy, and that by doing something as simple as taking a homeless person to lunch, we could maybe inspire others to do the same,” he said. “Any time you can help to give someone a voice, it’s empowering.”
The Hansens have forged strong friendships with many of the people they’ve dined with, including a father who became homeless after a divorce and chose to live year-round in a tent so he could be near his two sons, rather than move away to live with relatives in another state.
A former electrician, Mike Campbell, 53, said he has struggled for years with mental illness, including bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress syndrome brought on by childhood trauma.
Homeless for three years, Campbell had moments of extreme loneliness and despair before he met John and Chase one day on public transit.
“John struck up a conversation, and after we exchanged contact info, he reached out to me on Facebook to see how I was doing,” said Campbell.
“We made a real connection, and soon he was inviting me to bring my sons to go bike-riding or fishing with him and Chase,” he added. “Just to know that somebody cared made a huge difference.”
In a short time, said Campbell, John and Chase Hansen have become his trusted friends.
“Their hearts are always on the right side of good,” he said. “They’ve taught me how to be a friend again. I’m still homeless, but they’ve put me in touch with benefactors to help me with things like a rec center pass so that I can exercise and tires for my bicycle so that I can get around.”
During Chase’s holiday break from school last month, he and his dad decided to take Project Empathy to Las Vegas and Phoenix, traveling in an RV with one of their homeless friends to serve lunch at shelters in both cities, then visit the Grand Canyon.
“I just want other people to know that they can do this in their own town,” said Chase. “When you have lunch with a homeless person or just sit and talk to them, it helps to lift their life.”
John Hansen often becomes emotional when he recalls those early first meetings with his son over breakfast or burgers with strangers.
“He proves that you’re never too young to make a positive impact,” he said.