More than a token bet to help the homeless

GCU student Ben Bjornstad created a series of photographs that will be sold as non-fungible tokens to support the homeless as part of his First Fruit Foundation.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Ben Bjornstad traveled from North Pole, Alaska, to Grand Canyon University on a Discover Trip to get to know the campus, only to receive the wrong schedule.

But since then, he has found his way at GCU by helping others through his First Fruit Foundation.

Turning 24 bagels into sandwiches and trading them to the homeless in exchange for photographs is the springboard for Bjornstad’s plan to help the community.

“The need is so apparent out here,” said Bjornstad, a senior graduating from GCU on Friday with an entrepreneurship degree who earlier this week learned First Fruit will be one of the startups at GCU's Canyon Ventures business incubator. “You see it anytime you drive anywhere. You'll see just how obvious it is. The need is for someone to come in and provide for the people that need it the most.”

Bjornstad, an avid photographer, is in the community-building phase of an important initiative for his organization, setting a goal of 10,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter) before releasing First Fruit's first non-fungible tokens, which are unique cryptographic tokens that represent real-world or digital items that can then be bought, sold or traded more efficiently. The NFT drop will be the release of his "Love in Action" photographs of the homeless for bidding, which will provide funding and raise awareness toward this growing societal issue.

He also is selling First Fruit crewnecks, reusable tote bags and other clothing (photobjorn.us), with proceeds to go toward supporting the displaced population.

He is seeking to work with Phoenix nonprofits to bring more awareness to its mission. Bjornstad said "Love in Action" NFTs will provide nonprofits with a repeatable source of capital, a means of rewarding donors for their altruistic actions, and a way to spread awareness for their causes in a new way.

The NFT market has been volatile since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Bjornstad is adamant his efforts will succeed through X after not getting much traction on TikTok promoting the trading of sandwiches for portraits.

Bjornstad said he spoke a few times with Leon Abboud, the founder of Unfungible, who has claimed to help more than 50 companies increase their growth, revenues and fidelity through their NFTs, according to his LinkedIn page.

“Their whole business is taking NFT projects from where I’m at and blowing them up,” Bjornstad said. “I had a consulting call with him, and he told me where I should really be focusing my efforts.”

Robert Vera, founding director of Canyon Ventures, also provided direction for Bjornstad, emphasizing that he focus more on solving the problem.

Keith and Rex are one of the subjects of senior entrepreneurship major Ben Bjornstad’s First Fruit NFT "Love in Action" photo series. Proceeds from the photographs, as well as crewnecks, reusable tote bags and other clothing items, will go toward helping the homeless.

“He asked me who my target market was, and I said, ‘Well, it’s anyone who wants to help out with the homeless, right?’" Bjornstad recalled. “Vera said, ‘No, that's not your target market. Your target market is the nonprofits, so that you can provide the same service that you're doing for their nonprofit.’

“When my audience on X sees that I've made a contract with, say, Make A Wish Foundation, that's going to blow the project up even more.“

Vera admires Bjornstad’s passion to help the homeless through NFTs.

“He's very, very coachable,” Vera said. “He's obviously passionate about it, and he's got a really interesting idea.”

Bjornstad’s mission started slightly more than two years ago, when he lived in a small apartment on a limited budget. But the need was greater for those who lived near the intersection of Dunlap Road and Interstate 17.

So when a coffee company was ready to toss two dozen bagels, Bjornsted asked for them with a plan in mind.

He drove toward the intersection and saw a homeless man named Keith with his dog, Rex.

Keith asked Bjornstad why he was at the intersection with the bagels.

“And I kind of felt like that was God's nod to me of, ‘This is what you should be doing,’" said Bjornstad, a home-schooler from small-town North Pole, known for its year-round Christmas decorations, who was just 10 years old when he started his first business selling diamond willow saplings harvested from the woods near his house.

He became more curious as he made more visits, asking one homeless person what would he buy with $30 to $40 right now.

So the plan is to trade goods in exchange for a picture, then sell those photos as NFTs, using proceeds to continue to serve the homeless community.

Bjornstad takes all the photos, and his 15-year-old brother Caden, also a home-schooler, joined him this fall to help with “some of the nitty-gritty.”

Bjornstad has been accustomed to challenges like this. He said his father told him, “basically out of the womb,” that he was not going to pay for his college education.

“Actually, my plan was (to attend) ASU because I wanted to party,” Bjornstad said with a smile.

Ben Bjornstad displays some of his work.

After visits to Colorado Christian and Liberty universities, he chose to attend GCU and is serving in the Alaska National Guard as a means to pay for college.

“It taught me how to be consistent on how to show up every day,” said Bjornstad, who works on the cockpits of KC-135R aircraft during the summer. “How to want more out of yourself. I'm graduating debt-free. So, there’s that.”

Bjornstad treasures the responsibility of preparing the cockpit for the pilot and co-pilot and having the ability to fix any glitches in less than 10 minutes so flights are not delayed, as well as reviewing any issues during flights.

Working with nonprofits to address the homeless situation would satiate Bjornstad and align with GCU President Brian Mueller’s mission of trying to improve life around west Phoenix.

“I feel like Grand Canyon University has totally transformed the area that we're in,” Bjornstad said. “I've been here for five years. And just in that time, I've seen just how much it's changed.

Bjornstad noticed the community’s acceptance two years ago while living at a rugby house.

“As soon as they found out we were GCU students, they thanked us for being a part of GCU’s mission here,” Bjornstad said.

And he is relishing the opportunity to bond with his family during his final semester as an undergrad. In addition to Caden, Bjornstad’s parents became snowbirds 10 years ago and reside in Mesa during the winter months. Both sets of grandparents also moved to the Valley from the state of Washington.

“It’s so nice getting home-cooked meals again,” Bjornstad said.

As well as finding ways to aid the homeless.

GCU News senior writer Mark Gonzales can be reached at [email protected]

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