After his son Josh died of liver failure at the age of 32, Don Nahhas was talking to his pastor about what they could do to help the people Josh cared about the most.
It was during that meeting that Don decided to start a project to put together and distribute “blessing bags” — backpacks filled with essentials for homeless people in the Sacramento community.
“I wanted to do something to keep his memory alive for people in the same situation as he was,” said Don, who works at Sacramento State as an administrative support coordinator.
“They need grooming things. They need some food, socks, beanies, gloves,” said Don’s wife Dawn Nahhas, who also works on campus as an editor for the U.S. Geological Survey. “We’re going to do things like blankets — everything they must need when they’re out in the elements.”
For Don and Dawn, the needs of the homeless held a deep meaning, as they had watched their son Josh struggle with alcoholism and homelessness before his death on August 12.
“He was in and out of sober living and programs,” Dawn said. “He was homeless a lot of the time when he was addicted. … His liver couldn’t take anymore and he went in throwing up blood and had complete liver failure, then multi-system failure because of it.”
Dawn said that her son was able to stop drinking before, but that when he started again he was afraid of going through detoxing because of a seizure he had when he tried to quit cold turkey.
“If you’re not treated medically that’s what happens with withdrawal for alcoholics,” she said. “He got sober for a little bit again but just one beer got him back into the cycle.”
According to his parents, Josh did what he could to help others, so much so that when he got an apartment through Lutheran Social Services several months before he died, he let other people sleep there.
“If he had something, if he got food, he tried to share it with anyone,” said Don. “He always took care of the people on the street with him and if there was someone older than him, someone who couldn’t move around as much, Josh’s heart was so strong for other people that he would just take care of them.”
Don said that helping their son with his experience of alcoholism and homelessness gave him a new perspective on those who suffer from them.
“After Josh passed away, it helped me to look at homeless (people) and addicts differently — they’re somebody’s son or daughter, brother or sister, cousin, nephew, uncle, whatever — and ultimately they’re God’s child,” Don said. “I wanted to help people understand that you may look at this person on the street that’s homeless, drunk or whatever, but for one reason or another they got there.”
The Nahhas family has set up a website to solicit donations for the blessing bags, a project they will be undertaking in union with their spiritual home, Providence Church Sacramento, which meets in Tahoe Elementary School on 60th St. and Broadway.
Sac State President Robert Nelsen announced in his Sept. 21 president’s message that he will be donating to the blessing bag project. Don said that he was shocked when he heard Nelsen’s announcement.
“Don is a member of the Hornet Family. When he reached out to me about the charity they are creating in his son’s memory, I wanted to support him. … I understand the terrible loss that he has experienced,” said Nelsen, who lost his own son, Seth Nelsen, when he took his own life in 2001.
Blessing bags won’t only come in the form of backpacks, however, as the project will also put together Ziploc bags of grooming materials for homeless students at Hiram Johnson High School.
Don said that they are also planning to distribute blankets for the winter weather and that he understood the need for backpacks from his son’s experience.
“We would buy stuff for our son and there was just no place to carry it, so he would stuff it away somewhere and some authoritative person would come, gather up all the stuff and throw it in the trash,” Don said. “Having the ability to carry it around with them hopefully will help them a little bit.”
Dawn said she wants the bags to give hope to the recipients.
“Each backpack is going to have a laminated tab on it that says inspirational things like ‘You’re worthy,’ ‘You’re good enough,’ ‘You’re loved,’ ‘Don’t give up,’ things like that because a lot of the homeless are very discouraged and very hopeless,” she said. “Josh said to me one time when he was sober, ‘You know, I’m having a hard time looking people in the eye,’ because when you’re homeless for so long, he got used to looking away, looking down because he felt unworthy.
“In his honor, we want to help people out there and let them know they’re loved.”