Flintridge Prep grad develops tool for homeless, Syrian refugees in crisis

For Vick Liu, service has always been at the center of a life well lived.

It was a belief instilled in him as a Boy Scout, one he broadened while attending La Cañada’s Flintridge Preparatory School. When he left Prep’s hallowed halls last summer to attend MIT, the desire to help others followed him.

He attended a preorientation event for MIT freshman that involved a scavenger hunt through the streets of Boston. Designed to help newbies socialize and discover common interests, it was a watershed moment for Liu.

“Outside the school office there was this homeless person, this old man, sitting with his back to a building, holding a sign. I remember 30 or 40 people walking by him without even looking at him,” the 19-year-old Arcadia resident recalled in a recent interview. “This situation struck me. I started thinking what are ways I could use what I’m going to learn at MIT and use the resources that are on campus to help the homeless in Boston?”

In the months that followed, Liu passed out lunches and free T-shirts to anyone on the street who’d have them. But as a New England winter descended, he felt compelled to do more.

“A lunch lasts a few hours. A T-shirt lasts a couple of months,” he said. “I was thinking of something that would be maybe a little more long term.”

That’s when Liu came up with the idea for a lightweight, portable sleeping bag that would provide warmth and contain features practical for use on the streets. He enlisted the help of some fellow MIT students in bringing the concept to life. They sewed the first prototype in his dorm room from material Liu stowed under his bed.

Today, their creation — TravlerPack — has gone through several iterations and found applications far beyond Boston’s homeless. On Saturday, the group launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $15,000, enough to send 300 packs to Syrian refugees living in resettlement areas in the country’s northwestern region.

The packs will be distributed through the New Hampshire-based NuDay Syria, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization.

To discover what refugees might need or want in a sleeping bag, Liu contacted former Prep student Shant Armenian, who’d organized an after-school presentation involving Syrians relocated to Glendale and the greater Los Angeles area. Liu interviewed them about their unique problems so he and his teammates could further refine their prototype.

Consequently, TravlerPack is water- and tear-resistant and works in temperatures as cold as 14 degrees Fahrenheit (Liu slept in the snow on his dorm roof to test its capacity). Its configuration of zippers allows the piece to be used as a sleeping bag or blanket, and it can be zipped onto other units to accommodate families.

It can be worn on the go, and has a drawstring hood and draft collar. A special compartment allows for the insertion of a sleeping pad into the back of the bag, while other pockets allow for the concealment of documents and important items, or for the storage of clothes to create an improvised pillow.

“One of the goals was to make it as versatile as possible,” Liu said. “We don’t want to give them something they can only use three months out of the year.”

As impressive as Liu’s first entrepreneurial venture seems, TravlerPack isn’t the teen’s first foray into global philanthropy.

For the Prep science fair, Liu developed an inexpensive, portable blood analyzer that could identify and count blood cells. He later created a 3-D printed cellphone microscope capable of transmitting images of blood sample slides taken in the field.

“You could literally take the blood sample on the spot, and the microscope could take photos and transport them across a village, a country or the world, to a doctor or a laboratory,” he explained.

Liu’s work won praise at school, county, state and international science fairs. As a sophomore, he presented his work at a microfluidics conference in Germany. In 2015 and 2016, the teenager presented his published findings at consecutive annual meetings of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.

Laura Kaufman, chair of Flintridge Prep’s science department, never taught Liu but remembers his exceptional performance and attitude.

“He did amazing work at the science fair at all levels,” Kaufman said, recalling how Liu coached underclassmen accepted in the L.A. County Science Fair out of a desire to teach them things he wished he’d known.

“He was always looking for ways to make the world a better place,” she added.

Matt Linder, an engineer by trade who works as an assistant football coach at Prep, remembered Liu as a thoughtful player always willing to help a teammate. He said he wasn’t surprised by the teen’s latest venture.

“He’s got something — I don’t know what it is,” Linder said. “I’m very, very interested to see how he turns out. He’ll be rich in many different ways.”

For now, Liu’s goal is to put TravlerPack in refugees’ hands before winter. After that, the future is wide open.

“As long as I’m making a positive impact, I’m happy with that,” he said.

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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