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Frank Gray

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John Zachery Septer, in picture, gave backpacks of necessities to the city’s homeless.

A mother continues son’s legacy through backpacks

Shelley Septer’s son, Zach, could never hold a job.

He suffered from what she called an impulsive disorder. He would do things without thinking, dangerous things, things that would get him into trouble.

He once wrote a check for some friends to buy a stereo. The check was bad. He got in trouble.

One day he impulsively took his mother’s car and disappeared. He didn’t ask or tell anyone. He just did it. He later told his mother he had to go to Fort Wayne to look up a friend.

But Zach, whose full name was John Zachery Septer, used his nature to impulsively help people. He sort of created his own job, leaving a comfortable life in his parents’ home in Huntington to mix with the homeless in Fort Wayne and offer them encouragement and emotional and moral support.

Zach died a couple of years ago, in December of 2011. He was only 21. He was found in the rain-swollen St. Mary’s River along Superior Street, the victim of an apparent drowning.

No one knows how he ended up in the river. Family members say he wouldn’t have deliberately gone into the river. It’s a mystery.

It wasn’t until his funeral that his mother really understood what he’d been doing with his life. She knew he was hanging around with the homeless, but it wasn’t until a thousand people showed up at his calling and she heard their stories of how Zach had changed their lives that she realized he had been ministering to the homeless.

That Christmas, Shelley Septer decided she had to continue his work. She assembled 50 new backpacks and stuffed them with various items – blankets, socks, gloves, hats, toothbrushes, soap. She distributed them to the homeless.

The experience opened her eyes. She had no idea how many homeless people there were, she said, and she didn’t realize so much of that homelessness has to do with mental illness.

The backpacks that Septer distributed seemed so little, but she was struck by how important they were to the people who got them.

It’s amazing, Septer said, what can come out of a tragedy.

Septer’s program, though, rather than being a one-time event, has continued and grown as people started making donations – 20 backpacks here, some toothbrushes there.

Meanwhile, word somehow spread about the program. Similar programs have popped up in nearby cities, including Kokomo and even one in Mississippi.

Now, what Septer regards as her son’s legacy is taking a new turn.

Septer has established a nonprofit foundation and has started a Backpacks of Hope site on Facebook, and this week a website, www.packsofhope, is expected to go live online.

The goal is to let the program grow and spread.

“I don’t know how big it will get,” Septer said. “I hope we can help everyone who needs help.”

When he was alive, Septer said, her son, unbeknownst to her, was making a difference. It just goes to show, she said, “No matter who you are, you can make a difference in someone’s life.”

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.