CITYPAK Project: An Interview With SBK Foundation and Monterey International Co-Founder Ron Kaplan

CITYPAK Project: An Interview With SBK Foundation and Monterey International Co-Founder Ron Kaplan

On Wednesday, October 10th and Thursday, October 11th, the SBK Foundation, in conjunction with High Sierra Sport Company, will distribute 2,000 CITYPAK backpacks to the homeless at eight locations throughout Chicago.  I spoke with SBK Foundation and Monterey International co-founder Ron Kaplan about the initiative as well as his career in music and growing up as a music fan in Chicago...

According to the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, over 14,000 people are homeless each night in Illinois.  A 2011 Chicago Public Schools report said that over 10,000 homeless students were enrolled in Chicago classrooms that fall.  The criteria used in these studies varies and as a result so do the numbers.  One thing we can all agree on, however, is that homelessness in Chicago is a major problem.

October has started, temperatures have dropped and we've begun the slow march toward winter.  Weather certainly worse, it's a crucial time for those who find themselves facing the sad reality of having nowhere to go in the city of Chicago.

For some, assistance can be found in a homeless shelter, Church or other form of charitable outreach.  For others though, pride can be more uplifting than accepting charity.  For anyone homeless though, one very simple, basic issue lingers:  How to transport valuables, food, clothing and other personal items.

A 2010 USA Today piece referenced a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study that cited the number of homeless people in U.S. shelters at 1.56 million to end 2009.  So it's easy to understand how the word "homelessness" can often carry with it a sense of insurmountability.

The CITYPAK Project attempts to deal with the issue of homelessness in Chicago not by trying to solve something seemingly unsolvable but by attempting to make something so overwhelming a little bit more bearable for those who find themselves without a home as both winter and the holiday season approach.

This week, SBK Foundation and High Sierra Company will donate and distribute 2,000 backpacks to those in need throughout the Chicago area, helping recipients to secure and transport their belongings in a safer way more resistent of Chicago's harsh winter elements.  Supporting the endeavor is Ed Shurna (Chicago Coalition of the Homeless) and the City of Chicago Human Services Department.

"I was very fortunate to have met [Hank Bernbaum] the owner of a company called High Sierra and I had this idea after seeing so many people on the streets carrying these various plastic bags" said SBK Foundation and Monterey International co-founder Ron Kaplan.  "And I said 'What if they had a great bag that they could carry around and fit all their stuff in?'  So I approached Hank and said 'What do you think?'  And he liked the idea.  He was gracious enough to let me sit down with the design team and we came up with some early versions of it."

According to the CITYPAK website, the unique bag features a hide-away poncho designed to keep both the bag and its wearer dry, a cynch-top closure for extra waterproofing, a ballistic nylon outer shell strong enough to combat the elements, as well as anti-theft measures.


Kaplan, a lifelong Chicagoan, grew up both a fan of music as well as a musician in the northern suburbs and was influenced early on by the sixties call to activism of music by artists like Peter, Paul & Mary and Bob Dylan.  "In the beginning it was all about folk music.  The Beatles.  I listened to every single blues record I could get my hands on.  My high school band was pretty much a copy of the Butterfield Blues Band.  That’s what we wanted to be" he says.

Kaplan cites early concert experiences like The Cream at a small club in Arlington Heights, The Who at the International Amphitheatre and shows by Muddy Waters and more at clubs like the Quiet Knight as formative, Chicago area, concertgoing experiences.  And of course we all remember our first concert... For Ron it was The Beatles at the Amphitheatre.

"My first year in college, I went to Arizona State and someone asked me one day, 'Do you want to work at a concert?' And I said 'Sure!" explains Kaplan.  "So I don’t know how this all happened but suddenly I was onstage with Sly & The Family Stone at an Amphitheatre in Phoenix.  I was carrying equipment for them.  And it was insane."

Eventually, Ron Kaplan made music a career co-founding Monterey International in 1994.  With its humble roots in Chicago blues and offices now in both Monterey and Chicago, the powerhouse music agency has grown to boast a diverse and stellar talent lineup featuring the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, David Lee Roth, Los Lobos, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Soul Asylum, Van Morrison and many more.

"The basics of what we do are still the same basics of what we’ve always done.  It’s just finding the best possible places based on an artist’s value.  You go into a city and you analyze what their value is and what you can do whether it be a theatre, festival, club, anything.  We find the right situation for them" explains Kaplan.

The SBK Foundation, a Kaplan family charitable organization, has worked previously with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Habitat for Humanity's Musician's Village in New Orleans, MusiCares, Rock for Kids and Camp Heartland.  And once again, Kaplan has partnered with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless on the CITYPAK Project.

"I had a relationship with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and they helped arrange a focus group with a number of homeless people.  And we brought an early version of the bag and got a lot of input as to what their needs would be and over two or  three revisions we finally got the final one.  With the Coalition’s help and with help from the City of Chicago, we identified a number of the homeless shelters and outreach groups and we met with all of them and were given what their needs would be, how many bags they would want and on October 10th and 11th, we’re going to distribute these bags at each one of these shelters and outreach groups."

And while the distribution of 2,000 bags to homeless people throughout Chicago is a great first step, there are clearly more ambitious goals for the project moving forward.  Therefore, creating knowledge for the project is equally as important as the actual distribution of the CITYPAKs.

"The main point is that what we’re doing is going to achieve a great goal and if other people acknowledge what we’re doing and see it, we’ll be able to do more... You get certain joy out of giving.  In my business, it’s a very hard business of negotiating and touring and planning and taking and taking and taking… and this is the opposite.  This is about giving."




What:  2,000 custom made High Sierra backpacks distributed to the homeless in Chicago

Where:  Chicago shelters and outreach groups (Click HERE for the full list)

When:  Wednesday, October 10th and Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why:  The goal: to design and provide a useful, high quality backpack for the homeless

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