August 28, 2014 / 1:08 am

IU Grad Student uses visual storytelling to spread awareness

When Garrett Poortinga came back to Bloomington to work on earning his Master’s degree in design and production in Telecommunications, he knew that somehow he would like to give back to the community where he was raised and earned his degree in Telecommunications and Fine Arts in 2008.

Graduate students working towards a degree in Telecommunications Design & Production may go an atypical route when it comes to their theses. Instead of writing a thesis paper, telecom students work on “creative based” projects. For Poortinga, that meant using his passion for visual storytelling to work on a thesis about client relationships in non-profits and artist entertainment.

Like many other students, Poortinga navigates his way to class via bike. Last winter, during one of the coldest winters in recent memory, he began to notice a number of homeless people who were suffering day after day outside in the seemingly never-ending frigid temperatures.

“It was a crazy winter, people were dying in Bloomington,” Poortinga said. From there and after talking with a friend, he decided to focus his creative based thesis project on using his storytelling skills to bring awareness to the Interfaith Shelter, a Bloomington homeless shelter that provides a place for homeless people to sleep in the winter.

According to Poortinga, “the shelter is a collection of many community organizations,” and what really interested him was that there is “no barrier to entry to stay there for a night.”

That means that no man or woman could be turned away if they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, if they were sick; if they were mentally ill.

But the Interfaith Shelter affected Poortinga in a more personal way than just being an important institution in the community that he had grown up in. After graduating in 2008, Poortinga moved in San Francisco to pursue a career in visual storytelling and left his lifelong home, describing Bloomington’s familiarity as a “comfort blanket.”

According to Poortinga, living in the Bay Area “changed my character,” and after finding it difficult to find steady work, he found himself “in between housing.”

Poortinga was homeless.

“I had never seen myself in that position,” he explained. However, instead of moving back into Bloomington, his comfort zone, Poortinga stayed in San Francisco, ultimately giving him the unique perspective on homelessness that would eventually lead him towards his Masters work with the Interfaith Shelter.

The Interfaith Shelter is staffed by nearly 500 volunteers, many of them, especially during the winter, IU students. According to Poortinga’s indiegogo campaign page, the shelter’s annual budget is around $35,000, which includes laundry supplies and bus tickets for people staying at the shelter. Each night, the shelter provides people with a “meal, a warm sleeping place with clean blankets and pillows, and pays for laundry services for the bedding [and] bus tickets.”

Since July 7, Poortinga has been using his skills in visual storytelling and marketing to raise over $32,000 in offline donations and $21,544 through the indiegogo crowdfunding page that he had set up. His original goal was to raise $35,000, the shelter’s annual budget. He now hopes to double it by the time the campaign ends on Sept. 5.

The 60-day campaign allowed Poortinga to recognize the strengths in visual storytelling. He explains that “people respond to visual art” and “people want to see a video, people would rather watch a video to get a story the quickest.”

Courtesy: Garrett Poortinga Poortinga interviews Interfaith Winter Shelter volunteers fo his video.

Courtesy: Garrett Poortinga
Poortinga interviews Interfaith Winter Shelter volunteers for his video.

As of Aug. 28, the documentary-style video that Poortinga created to spread awareness about the shelter and his campaign has garnered 368 views and 544 shares on Facebook

Poortinga admits that although his campaign has surpassed his original goals, it still was not an easy or simple endeavor. For example, he explains that getting local support from businesses to provide “perks” for online donations was difficult.

“Not everyone believes in the Interfaith Winter Shelter,” he said. However, he was able to tap into Bloomington’s great wealth of local art and now, people who donate online can receive unique “perks” like an album recorded by a former homeless person who stayed at the shelter.

With just less than a week left before the campaign ends, Poortinga is beginning to reflect on the journey that his Masters thesis has led him. More importantly, he is excited for the future of what he describes as “planting seeds to something that can grow much larger.”
To learn more about Garrett’s campaign or donate online, click here.