Big change can happen with just a few people. Or, in this case, a few burritos. That’s the truth with Blaize Abuntori, an African international student who came to Reno and started the Reno Burrito Project. Every week Abuntori and his team of volunteers cook, wrap, and deliver nearly 200 burritos every week to unsheltered residents in the city. What started in his kitchen has now grown into a full volunteer team of cooks, tortilla warmers, and burrito wrap experts.
Abuntori came to Reno to study at the University of Nevada, Reno. When he saw unsheltered individuals living on the river, he was surprised. The concept of homelessness, he says, isn’t really a thing in his country. While there may be more homeless individuals in bigger cities, it’s more uncommon.
Abuntori grew up in a two-bedroom house that he shared with eleven of his family members at any time. Food was always available, and plenty of it.
“So I was surprised, in a country that was wealthy, there were problems like that going on,” Abuntori said. “I didn't have the money to find a place for people to stay...but I thought that the next thing I could do was food.”
Abuntori decided on burritos after his roommate bought him one for the first time. Not even knowing how to wrap one, he got a few friends to help him out. Now, businesses like Laughing Planet contribute beans and beef biweekly, and his volunteer team is growing.
It’s not just about the food either. “One of the things that we try to do is to connect with the community and talk. And that was something that was very important to me and I think that we broke that barrier by showing up every single week by asking how they are doing and how their days going and build this level of trust.”
Much like Grant Denton and others working with our unsheltered residents, Abuntori and his team of volunteers are helping those in need by not just providing food, but companionship.
In Ghana, no one is a stranger, Abuntori says. It’s not uncommon to talk to someone you’ve never met on the street, and families regularly chat with each other in public spaces. So coming to America, where unsheltered residents are often dehumanized, was a very different experience for Abuntori.
“I remember one time somebody who we were speaking to became very emotional and said ‘Thank you for treating me like a human being,’’ He says. “Just because somebody doesn't have a house doesn't mean they are less than us.”
Abuntori takes a lot of inspiration from his father, the chief of his home village. Back in Ghana, his father was instrumental in bringing generators and running water to the village, as well as bringing high school teachers for students. He also had 10,000 trees planted to combat the deforestation in the area.
“I've learned so much from him, seeing him be selfless and help out the community. I think that's where I learn how to do this work that I'm doing. There are so many things I want to do in the same spirit of sharing and community.”
There’s a lot of work still to be done, Abuntori says. The more they interact with the community, the more the RPB realizes people need more than food. Abuntori has hopes for bigger projects in the future, including a mentorship program for those who want to enact change in their community.
His biggest piece of advice? Don’t be afraid to start just because you don’t know how.
“You don't have to have everything necessarily figured out.” He says. ”You have to have an idea about what you want to do and what you want to give back. As long as you show your commitment and determination, people will help you, because people have a natural tendency to be kind and to be a community regardless of differences.”