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Kevin Barber '23 standing behind 3 Wheels of Change employees

Kevin Barber '23 standing behind 3 Wheels of Change employees

Wheels of Change

Kevin Barber ’23 was inspired to start a program to help and employ unhoused people in San Diego.

Sophomore Kevin Barber was a young teenager when he watched a TED Talk that changed his life.

The talk on practical ways to help those who are homeless, by Albuquerque's then-mayor Richard Berry—and having a mother who worked as an ER physician while volunteering to help unhoused individuals—made Barber realize that his hometown of San Diego needed someone to create change within their unhoused community.

Fifteen-year-old Barber stepped up to the plate.

After convincing his mother to bring him to Albuquerque to see firsthand the work the mayor had talked about, a program called  ‘There’s a Better Way,’  Barber saw how much a program that helps employ the unhoused has an impact on these individuals.

“I met with all the unhoused folks there and really got to see how big of a difference he was making for them,” he said. He brought what he learned back to San Diego.

After eight months of fundraising, working with the City of San Diego, and developing a new program that resembled There’s a Better Way, Barber founded Wheels of Change.

Wheels of Change empowers people and gives them work, by offering minimum wage jobs five days a week to unhoused individuals who have expressed interest in working. Since its launch Feb. 26, 2018, it has been run by the nonprofit Alpha Project, which has been serving the unhoused community of San Diego for over 30 years.  

The program’s two vans pick up unhoused individuals and take them to pick up trash, pull weeds, and clear brush.After working for the day, the individuals are paid and taken to Alpha Project’s Bridge Shelter. The program also works to connect them with social services they may need, even housing, while offering them the dignity of work.

Wheels of Change is on track to employ 5,200 unhoused individuals this year. The program has evoked a lot of interest within the unhoused community with many individuals on a waitlist to enter the program. The Wheels of Change workers have also cleaned up more than 20 tons of trash which is also making a difference for San Diego’s environment. While the foundation of this program has impacted hundreds of people in his community, it has also had a substantial impact on Barber, who is a sophomore undeclared business major at SCU.

“Wheels of Change has definitely impacted me a lot by being able to meet so many different people, hear all their stories, and just see a lot of members of our community that many of us don’t happen to see on a regular basis," he says. 

With his schoolwork, Barber is unable to work hands-on with Wheels of Change. But he is still able to raise funds for the program from afar. He has been reflecting on how Wheels of Change coincides with Santa Clara’s values.

“I think Santa Clara’s values really align well with Wheels of Change,” he said. “I actually met with Father O'Brien the other day and he was speaking to the fact that Wheels of change really aligns with SCU’s values because I feel like Santa Clara has a similar mission where they are always trying to give back whether it is to the environment or the community. And that has been my goal with Wheels of Change.”

Barber continues to learn about the importance of giving back to your community through his Santa Clara education and through his experiences with Wheels of Change.

“One thing that I have learned just from talking with all of our unhoused folks, is how easy it has been for a lot of them to become homeless," he observed. "Many of them had full-time jobs or were injured or had a health insurance problem so a lot of them are more similar to us than a majority of us think.”

When asked how he would encourage fellow students to get involved with social change within their communities, Barber says: “Get as connected with as many people in your community as possible. One of the great things about Wheels of Change is that it has really been hundreds of people who have made it possible whether it is different nonprofits, donors, foundations, the unhoused folks. I think 'it definitely takes a village' would be my main takeaway from creating and running Wheels of Change.”

This past September, Kevin was recognized as one of CNN’s Champions of Change. You can read and watch his interview here.