SALT LAKE CITY — Nine-year-old Chase Hansen has always had a perceptive eye for those who are suffering, his dad says.
Years ago, as a small child, Chase was walking with his family downtown and asked "what was going on with some of these people who looked sad," John Hansen said of his son.
The boy's concern for the well-being of those who are less fortunate has only grown, and since 2016, Chase has been spearheading something he and his dad call Project Empathy, an undertaking in which they and other volunteers invite a homeless person to a conversation over lunch.
On Wednesday, direct-to-consumer mattress maker Leesa Sleep teamed up with the Hansens to distribute 150 mattresses to the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, which runs an emergency shelter downtown.
Leesa Sleep made donations Wednesday in Salt Lake City, four other U.S. cities and two cities in the United Kingdom in honor of World Homeless Day, selecting a local "social changemaker" in each location to coordinate the effort; in Salt Lake City, their choice was 9-year-old Chase.
"A homeless person that receives that mattress really needs it, and deserves it," Chase told a rapt audience of adults, "and gets to accomplish things the next day."
Justin Ward, Project Empathy's first beneficiary who had previously received a Leesa mattress with the help of the Hansens, agreed that a good night's sleep can help a destitute person better face steep challenges without adding fatigue to their list of setbacks.
"I tell you, that makes a world of difference from where I was, where I am now in having the mattress, to be able to sleep comfortably, and not wake up in so much pain as I used to," said Ward.
The Rescue Mission, which also offers meals each day and provides programs helping the homeless overcome drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness, will benefit significantly from the mattresses, mission director Chris Croswhite said.
"A great night's sleep is a critical part of (our work) because as people sleep well, they can wake up the next day to face the challenges of their lives," Croswhite said.
UTA police also donated pillows to go with the new mattresses.
"We want everyone we interact with to keep their dignity intact regardless of what their situation is, and by us being here today, being able to give back, we feel like we're doing that," said UTA Police Chief Fred Ross.
Corrine Allen, a sales associate with Leesa Sleep, told those gathered at the Rescue Mission that the company has been "using our platform to bring awareness to the state of homelessness" since it was founded in 2015, donating one mattress for every 10 sold.
"At Leesa, we believe a bed is more than just a place to sleep. It is a place where the day ends and the next begins, and where the rest that happens in between can make all the difference when you wake up," Allen said.
She said Leesa Sleep was drawn to partnering with 9-year-old Chase because of the Hansens' similar focus on serving the homeless by striving to "reignite their sense of self-worth."
John Hansen said that "if a doctor were to prescribe a pathway forward for someone" who is homeless, "it would be to feel like they belong and to feel heard and to also sleep well."
Ernie Luna, a former alcoholic and recent graduate of the Rescue Mission's New Life program who credited the Hansens for getting him in touch with the mission's services, urged those getting help at the mission to see the donated mattresses as evidence that others care about them and that their life is of worth.
"For people out there who think that there's no more hope, who think that nobody cares, there's people out there like John and Chase, there's hope, there's people that want to help you, there's the mission," said Luna, who also described his recovery from alcoholism and securing a stable job.
"All you have to do is look for it. Just ask, and just the same way as I can change, anybody can change."