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The Unconventional Humanitarian

Branden Bushnell's Community Service: Blowing Glass, Spreading Love

Community service is an art; art is a community service. Glass artist, Branden Bushnell is excelling at both, making meals for the homeless while setting up a nonprofit collective to fund his initiative. 

In the shadowy, mist-veiled corners of Washington state, just down the road from the iconic setting of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a glassblower is up at 5 a.m. making breakfast for his town’s unhoused population in the cold-weather shelter that he runs. His playlist gently crescendos over the hours, waking the inhabitants to the smell of bacon and pancakes. It’s near freezing outside, and the place is full. Branden Bushnell didn’t intend on ending up here, but he is so glad he did.

“It was one solo Thanksgiving four years ago. I was in Tacoma, Washington, at the time and most of my family was back East and I just decided, fuck it,” Bushnell said. “I made a huge dinner and threw it, along with a folding table and chairs, in the back of my truck and went to this gas station around the corner from my house. I sat down and had a meal with the homeless who hung out around there. And that was it; I was hooked.”

The next four years after that first Thanksgiving saw Bushnell altering course so that he could fulfill what is clearly a life calling. He moved out of Tacoma to the small town of Sultan, Washington, and from that point forward, every time he made soup, he made 10 quarts of the stuff – which evolved into two-to-three times each week. Every time a person’s shelter/tent was destroyed, he bought them two as a replacement. To avoid any questions or hassles from the city, he applied for a food handling card so that he could distribute his soup-filled mason jars in relative peace. During that time, he was able to ascertain what people needed just from hanging out with them.

I made a huge dinner and threw it, along with a folding table and chairs, in the back of my truck and went to this gas station around the corner from my house. I sat down and had a meal with the homeless who hung out around there. And that was it; I was hooked.

“I kept a notebook of what people needed and would pop into the secondhand stores and pick up what I could to pass out,” Bushnell continued. “Some of this would make its way to Facebook and people began donating, just to be kind, not because I had asked for anything. All of a sudden, every winter I had about $5000 in donations on my hands, so I felt like I needed to step up my game. I felt like I had this responsibility because people were investing so much and believed in what I was doing.”

The local food bank provided the ingredients, and mason jars of soup became full meals that were kept in the back of his Xterra in the largest marine-grade cooler he could find. A cigarette lighter-powered electric heater (exactly like the one he had previously used to defrost the windows in his Volkswagen Bug) kept the meals at temperature. This, along with a five-gallon water cooler full of hot water, enabled Bushnell to drive around town and offer anyone a hot meal with a cup of tea, hot chocolate, coffee, or whatever it is they wanted. 

As mobile as this was, “It was like herding cats,” Bushnell continued (affectionately). “A lot of times, I would make 20 meals and only be able to find/hand out two. It was then I realized the local Boys and Girls Club had this huge building dedicated to just showers. They agreed to let me use it every Monday and Wednesday for the outreach I was doing. Now all of a sudden I had a guaranteed location where I knew I could find folks and provide food and supplies – we were even able to source a mobile dentist and doctor every month. And that’s when everything gelled.”

Combining Art, Entrepreneurship and Activism

This work doesn’t call to everyone, but it calls to Branden Bushnell so loudly that he has constructed his life in such a way as to be able to do the most good. These days, that looks like living in an intentional, off-grid and not-for-profit collective he co-founded with fellow creatives called QuestLine. After Covid, Bushnell bought an RV for its flexibility and adaptability and has it parked on the collective in order to minimize living expenses. This out of the box approach has enabled Bushnell to level up his efforts. If the marine-grade cooler and shower days were where it all gelled, this is how it’s now fully baked.

“My work as a glassblower will continue there in a 40ft shipping container turned studio, in which the nonprofit will pay me basically an hourly wage – half of which can be funneled directly into homelessness relief efforts,” Bushnell continued.

Half. He is a glass blowing artist by trade, and a humanitarian by calling. One who has adopted a lifestyle of simplicity and resourcefulness propelled by a desire to allocate resources to a greater cause. It’s a unique, practical and impactful approach to a complicated problem and one that showcases how entrepreneurial ventures can serve as platforms for social change. To be clear, it’s tough work – work for which not everyone is cut out. Very few people will choose to pace the shelter aisles doing breath checks, worrying about what fentanyl is doing to the people he’s trying to help.

“Right now, it’s like sweeping water uphill,” he said. However stacked the odds may seem, in this rainy corner of the world, Bushnell has become a lighthouse. He has been able to navigate the unexpected twists and turns of the unhoused reality, driven compassionately ahead blending a unique combination of entrepreneurship with a deep commitment to societal welfare.

By Ryan Mills

A message from Branden:

I’m am trying to outfit a food truck for my new DAILY supply chain to the Community of both supplies and hot meals.

The organization is called “The Soup Socialist.”… and the tag line is “FREE SOUP FOR YOU!”.
We will offer a full menu of soups, sandwiches, hot and cold drinks and seasonal items.
 
Unlike most food trucks we will be out all year… no matter the weather. By fall when it starts to rain we are looking at having a large canopied area with tables and chairs for the homeless to get out of the rain for a hot meal.
People without the means eat for free and those with the means donate whatever they want.
 
No one gets turned away.
 
Most to all of my food costs will be handled by local foodbanks and grocery store donations.
I’ve been working on these connections in the community for a long time and I feel I’m ready to launch.
 
It’s been a very tough but rewarding struggle getting here but so many great people are the ones who made this happen.
 
Thanks for taking the time to read the article and please share!
 
Click here and donate today to help Branden make an even bigger difference. 
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