Q&A with CITYPAK Founder Ron Kaplan

Tell us about yourself?

I’m Ron Kaplan, and I grew up outside of Chicago. I had a very fortunate upbringing, but it was one that came with the responsibility of giving back. When my mother passed I started managing her foundation - the Selma Breskin Kaplan (SBK) Foundation - but soon realized that I didn’t want to just write checks. I felt very disconnected just handing out money through the foundation and I started looking at the ways we could provide more value and support to homeless communities within the Chicago area. 

Why did you start CITYPAK? 

I started realizing that through access to the SBK Foundation’s resources I had the ability to make a real impact and I wanted to create a balance of giving (as opposed to just taking). It took some time for the idea for CITYPAK to really form, but once it did I realized the potential it had for creating real support to those experiencing homelessness. In fact, CITYPAK is in part funded by the SBK Foundation and the SBK Foundation is currently in the process of finding other inspirational charities we can fund that will help drive real change in communities.

Where did the idea for the PAKs come from? 

Through my work with the SBK Foundation I was often visiting different homeless shelters or churches, and I was also seeing people on the streets of Chicago who were carrying their belongings around in garbage or plastic bags. It was clear to me that people needed a better means for carrying their belongings. One such organization I met with was the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and rather than just giving them money I thought to myself “what else can i do?”.  This is in part how the idea for CITYPAK was born, but it truly came to life when rather serendipitously I met the owner of High Sierra at one of my concerts. 

What problem is CITYPAK trying to help solve? 

With our PAKs we are trying to make life on the streets for those experiencing homelessness just that little bit easier. I realize that many older homeless people are carrying a lot of personal items, and often in shopping carts,  whereas the youth homeless are more apt to be lighter on their feet; they use bikes for example, and our quality, durable and sturdy PAKS are really good for both purposes.

Tell us how you came to partner with High Sierra? 

I met the owner of High Sierra at a concert. We had a brief conversation where I pitched the idea and asked if he’d be interested in partnering with me. Fast forward to a few weeks later and I was in his office, and he was showing me pictures of WW2 soldiers in the rain and asked if their PAKs were similar to what I envisioned. We agreed that day to work together - he saw the concept for CITYPAK as being of value and having impact. The funny story of it all, when we finally put the order in for the first 2000 PAKS he called me and said I’m selling my company to Samsonite. I thought we’d have the 2000 PAKS and that’d be it. I waited for nearly 4 months not knowing the answer. Then I got a call from the CEO of Samsonite who loved the idea, they flew out to Chicago and we met in person to formalize how we could grow the partnership. We’ve now been working together for almost 10 years.

You’ve distributed more than 88,000 CITYPAKs in over 168 cities. Throughout all of these distributions, what’s stuck most with you?

Being from Chicago something that has really stuck with me is the validation I felt when we reached our milestone of distributing nearly 5000 PAKS in the city. I would see the PAKs on the streets and I always go up and ask the PAK recipient about their experience with the PAK and if they have any feedback. A common theme I’ve noticed is that many of the people I’ve spoken to are highly educated, but have had a twist in their life that put them where they were. Being able to provide real support to people in this situation is a great feeling. In fact, giving creates such a great experience for you personally, in that it creates happiness that you’re making a difference. 

We’re coming up on 10 Years of CITYPAK. How did you get here? 

As soon as we opened the website we started getting hits, through word of mouth and from the organizations we were partnering with. We’ve successfully maintained our relationship with High Sierra, they’ve been instrumental in helping us keep inventory stocked and getting the PAKs to those who need them the most. Outside of that, the rest has been ensuring we continue to build upon our success and we’re now starting to look at what the next 10 years might look like for CITYPAK. 

What does success as a charity look like for CITYPAKs next 10 years? 

I’d like grow CITYPAK beyond servicing the homeless and into a source for FEMA or other disaster relief organizations when people are temporarily homeless.In another 10 years, I’d like to see us reach the milestone of having distributed over 200,000 PAKS, and we’d like to be actively working with sponsorship partners who can help make that happen, not just in the US but globally.