Provo couple remembers sister through service to homeless

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Provo native Cassie Gruwell died suddenly just days before her 21st birthday and weeks before her wedding. Now her brother, Ammon Gruwell, and his wife, Jamie, pass out kits full of supplies for homeless people in Provo several times each week in Cassie’s memory.

In July 2016, a blood clot in Cassie’s leg moved into her lungs, causing respiratory failure.

“It was really hard for our family just because she was so full of life and full of love,” Ammon said.

Cassie’s sister-in-law Jamie said the two had a close relationship.

“Cassie was just the most wonderful person, the most loving girl I’ve ever met,” Jamie said. “I felt so privileged to be her sister.”

Jamie and Ammon Gruwell, right, sit with Cassie Gruwell and their son, Isaac. (Ammon Gruwell)

Ammon and Jamie wanted to do something that would make Cassie’s death more meaningful. Originally, Ammon’s idea was to simply make a better effort to visit lonely people, like Cassie used to do.

“She loved just going out of her way to reach out to people and to make people feel accepted and understood,” Ammon said. “I really loved that about her, and when she passed away I felt like the world was just missing out on so much.”

However, Ammon soon realized it would be difficult to visit someone who was struggling without having a concrete purpose for the visit. That’s when the idea of Cassie Kits was born.

The project

Cassie Kits are quart-sized bags filled with supplies, including snacks, bandages, lip balm, water and wipes.

Ammon and Jamie purchase the supplies for the kits and assemble them themselves. They and their two young sons have been delivering the kits to homeless people in Provo since the beginning of October. The Gruwells like to spend time talking with the homeless when they distribute the kits.

“We ask them about their life, we ask them about their interests, what they like to do and what they struggle with, the challenges that they face in their lives,” Ammon said.

Courtney Carter, a member of the Gruwells’ ward, said she is impressed by the extra effort Ammon and Jamie make to connect with the homeless people they meet.

“Although the kits are needed, I’m positive these people have their days made when they are able to have an actual conversation with some of the kindest people I’ve had the chance of meeting,” Carter said.

While talking to complete strangers can be daunting, Jamie said the experience is always worth it.

“When I handed out my first kit, I was scared I wouldn’t know what to talk about or how to keep the conversation going, but everyone we’ve met just loves to talk,” Jamie said. “They just seem so eager to tell us their stories and so grateful that someone’s sitting down and talking to them.”

Ammon and Jamie allow others to purchase kits on the Cassie Kits website for the cost of the materials.

Changing perspectives

Ammon said the goal of the project is not only to give homeless people supplies they need, but also to increase love and understanding for homeless people.

“More than just handing out the kits, we’d like to help people understand the struggles that people who are less fortunate are going through and feel more compassion for them,” Ammon said.

With that in mind, Ammon and Jamie take pictures with the homeless people they meet and post their pictures and stories on the Cassie Kits website.

Ammon and Jamie encourage people who buy and deliver kits to send them the stories they gather for the website, too.

Ammon said before he and Jamie started the project, he thought people living on the streets were there because they were addicted to drugs or had recently been released from prison.

“In so many cases it’s not them being lazy or them being a bad person, it’s just they ended up in circumstances that led them down a terrible road,” Ammon said.

Jamie also feels like the project has changed the way she views homeless people.

“I think before we started this project, I would see homeless people and just walk past them because I didn’t know what I could do to help,” Jamie said. “I think just the fact that we stop and talk now, even if we don’t give them much, I think that’s really beneficial for my children that they see that we’re trying to make a difference and that we love the people around us.”

Ammon and Jamie Gruwell speak with Phil Crane at Pioneer Park in Provo, Utah while giving out Cassie Kits to the homeless. (Ashley Lee)

Jamie said understanding homeless people better is important.

“These are normal people,” Jamie said. “They have families. They have hopes and dreams.”

The people

Jamie’s favorite experience so far was with a woman named Heather. Jamie said when they gave a Cassie Kit to Heather, she started eating the crackers inside the kit. When Heather noticed Jamie’s young son Benjamin looking at the crackers, she gave some to him too.

At one point after living on the street, Heather had a job and was able to rent a small apartment in Provo. She would invite the friends she’d made while she was homeless to stay with her, to the point where 17 people would be sleeping in her living room at one time.

“She couldn’t stand the thought of them being outside while she was in the apartment,” Jamie said. “She’s back on the streets again, but I can still just see that love and compassion in her heart. Her goal in life is to help others.”

The purpose of trials

Despite the sadness the Gruwells feel about losing a sister, Ammon said he has learned and grown from the experience.

“She was our little baby sister,” Ammon said. “It’s been really hard to lose her, but it’s really pulled us all together and helped us recognize what’s really important in life. We never want to have trials, but they help us understand what’s really important.”

Ammon hopes the project will grow beyond something only he and his family do.

“I’ve come to have greater compassion for those around me,” Ammon said. “I think all of us could use a little more compassion for those around us.”

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