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Volunteer Spotlight: Kathy Kennedy of Christ Church

I want to keep looking for opportunities to help. I think one of those ways is working with other congregations — helping them get over any reticence to getting involved in creating change in our community. As congregations work together, we can share knowledge, information, fundraising initiatives, and support. Working together, we can have an impact that’s more than the sum of its parts. I truly believe that.

Home & Hope relies on the generosity of our donors and volunteers. What we do to help families facing or experiencing homelessness simply would not be possible without them.

Every so often, we highlight those who are involved with our mission in the hopes of inspiring others to get involved in helping their communities — particularly around the issue of homelessness.

One of our most active volunteers is Kathy Kennedy who is a congregant at Christ Church Portola Valley and a very dedicated advocate for the work we do here at Home & Hope.

Kathy, tell us a bit more about yourself.

I’m currently the head of Outreach for Christ Church in Portola Valley — this is how I’m involved with Home & Hope.

I grew up on the East Coast and went to undergraduate school in Pennsylvania. After that, I decided to do something that not many women did at the time — get my Master’s in Business Administration. I was accepted at Northwestern, so I packed my bags and moved to Illinois to complete my degree. I moved to the Bay Area in 1984.

When did you get involved with Home & Hope?

Over the course of my life so far, I’ve been involved with a lot of different nonprofits holding various different roles — whether as a volunteer, part of a community association, or serving on various boards.

In about 2001 Christ Church became involved with the Interfaith Hospitality Network (H&H’s original name), as it was then called — not long after Home & Hope started. We were a “helping” congregation. At that time, I volunteered every six months or so, often having my Brownie troop make meals for the families in the program.

But soon, my participation began to grow. Our family began volunteering more often. I think that volunteering is a great way to teach children the values of helping those in need and having a generosity of spirit. Volunteering with Home & Hope helped my kids understand that homeless people look just like you and me and that anyone could face homelessness in their lives. My kids loved to work with the kids who were in the Home & Hope program — working on homework or projects for school or just playing a board game. And when my daughter was old enough, she also helped with overnight volunteering.

During that same time, my family and I also volunteered at a soup kitchen, helping individuals some poor but housed and others who were homeless and often faced dire circumstances. So for us, you could definitely say that volunteering and contributing to the greater good was a family affair.

What attracted you to the cause of helping the homeless?

I’ve felt strongly about the plight of the homeless ever since I was a child. Then, my priest was vocal about the plight of the homeless. He made sure that we all understood what homelessness looked like and how tenuous a stable life can be. Also, at that time, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated and his message of creating change fueled so many people, including myself, to take up the causes of justice and peace.

What are your activities or roles at Home & Hope and what do they involve?

I’m currently the head of the Outreach Committee at Christ Church. The Outreach Committee makes the decisions for the parish about which organizations Christ Church supports and the specific ways we support them, which typically involve either time — such as volunteering — or funds — such as doing fundraisers or a pledge drive.

We have anywhere from 40 to 50 volunteers who are an enthusiastic bunch with a lot of ideas and motivation; so we’ve really tried to harness that to be of service to others. We’ve done grocery drives, boxed up and delivered meals to families, and other special initiatives to help others during the pandemic. It was only three years ago we stepped up to become a hosting congregation for Home & Hope.

How has the pandemic affected the work that you and Christ Church volunteers do? I imagine it’s been a big challenge.

Believe it or not, the pandemic motivated us to find new ways to help others. And we’ve taken great strides in making a difference during this challenging time.

When the shelter in place orders were given, we were right in the middle of a toiletries drive, which unfortunately came to a screeching halt. At that point, we decided to find solutions to help in the midst of a catastrophic situation because we all knew that COVID was going to make families’ difficult situations even more dire.

On umpteen Zoom calls, we spent a lot of time brainstorming and discussing how to continue our work with Home & Hope while keeping everyone safe. And fortunately, one of our volunteers is a nurse and had experience treating people during both the AIDS and Ebola pandemics, so she had a lot of knowledge about how to stay safe.

Using all precautions and some creative thinking, we hosted families for two weeks last summer — having them stay in our church and providing them with meals and moral support. We were incredibly careful because we wanted everyone involved to feel very safe and comfortable with the situation. I have to say, even with the social distancing and masks, it was so wonderful to reconnect with Home & Hope families and help them in a time of deep need.

We also wanted to give people some hope and happiness — sort of turning lemons into lemonade, I guess. The kids had been cooped up for months and we had everything from a playground, bikes and basketball ready for them. We organized outdoor movie nights and dances so that there was some respite from what was happening out in the world. We wanted to give people a chance to connect and stave off those feelings of pandemic-driven isolation.

But, no doubt, there were some really hard challenges. All the families had lost their jobs during the economic collapse. One family’s child was extremely immunocompromised, so one of our volunteers coordinated for two weeks with this child’s mom — learning about the condition, dietary constraints, medications, and so on — so that we could provide the specific help that the family needed.

I have to say that I’m so proud of our volunteers, who, even in the deepest parts of COVID-19, overcame fear and stayed 100% committed to helping others.

What motivates you — and your congregation — to stay involved?

It goes without saying that COVID has created a massive need in every area of social service. Before COVID, helping Home & Hope was relatively easy — once a year we hosted families in our church for a week then moved onto our next initiative. But we wanted to do more once the virus hit. We hosted for two weeks in 2020 and have run a half a dozen grocery drives in the past year for the Home & Hope families staying in motels.

As many people know, the Peninsula is an area full of haves and have nots. With rents as exorbitant as they are, it’s not hard to understand that this isn’t a sustainable situation. It has to be fixed. And through our research, we found that both Life Moves and Home & Hope were having the most positive impact on the community. Helping the people that these organizations serve is why we stay involved and why we did even more to help once the pandemic hit.

I’ve also seen, firsthand, the extreme challenges that families face and that drives me to keep the course. We know a woman who is originally from El Salvador. Under the political regime at the time, many members of her family were murdered and she found herself the primary caretaker of six of her grandchildren. With them, she fled and came to the Bay Area. She worked hard cleaning houses to provide for her grandchildren but often couldn’t give them things that we all take for granted, like a proper Christmas. So our family provided Christmas for those kids.

This is a close up look at what it’s like to survive on the Peninsula under those circumstances. And it made me realize that every family that becomes homeless has a situation — whether it’s fleeing from political upheaval, running from an abusive partner, losing your job, or any other number of circumstances. Anyone can be caught in those situations and they deserve a chance to get back on their feet.

Of what contribution or achievement are you most proud?

Hands down it’s making a difference in my congregation and more importantly, how the congregation has stepped up during such difficult times. No matter what, they just kept showing up for the families. That’s an incredible gift.

More specifically, we set up opportunities for families to have some fun and safely be together. We gave kids hula hoops, we watched the stars with the parents, we saw families make friends with other families so that they could support each other. Really, we wanted people to feel that sense of human connection and community again because that can be so healing and give so much hope. I loved that experience and so did our volunteers.

For Life Moves we have provided over two thousand meals this last year for the residents of the Maple Street Shelter in Redwood City which now houses 160 people each night. We have also done linen drives and a fill-the-backpack program for kids at both Haven House and Home & Hope.

What do you hope your organization will achieve in the near future? In the long term?

I want to keep looking for opportunities to help. I think one of those ways is working with other congregations — helping them get over any reticence to getting involved in creating change in our community. As congregations work together, we can share knowledge, information, fundraising initiatives, and support. Working together, we can have an impact that’s more than the sum of its parts. I truly believe that.

There’s so much need in the world, so besides our work with Home & Hope and Life Moves, we’ve also become involved with a program in Malawi, Africa called GAIA whose mission is to eradicate AIDS. Over the past twenty years they have trained 500+ nurses, created mobile medical clinics, administered life-saving drugs plus provided medical care for a million AIDS orphans. Within 5 years AIDS will be eradicated in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa, and GAIA will take their model to an adjacent AIDS-plagued country.

We want to have sustained relationships with all three organizations and we’re excited by and committed to their missions.

Does anyone in your life play a role in supporting your involvement? In providing inspiration?

My daughter, Erin, has been volunteering by my side since she was little. At four years old, she was making PB&J sandwiches for kids in the Home & Hope program! When I did overnight volunteering last summer, she was my overnight buddy. She’s continued to help over the years and she’s now at her 19th anniversary of volunteering. That’s commitment. That’s dedication.

Do you have a message to share with anyone or any congregation who’s thinking about getting involved with Home & Hope?

I can make this answer short and sweet: Just do it! Get involved, take that step toward making a difference in a family’s life. You’ll never regret showing kindness and generosity to others.

Interested in understanding how you can help families facing or experiencing homelessness? Visit our donation page or volunteer page now and see what a true difference you can make.