This post is part of Water For People‘s #ChangeTheWorld campaign
Meet my outstanding friend, Katie.
Katie is, quite possibly, the most friendly, kind and generous person I’ve ever known. I feel grateful to be able to consider her a friend. She is a devoted mother, raising her 3 girls (and another little one on the way) with her heart and soul. She has a passion for connecting with people and greets every new face with a smile and an acceptance that I can’t quite describe.
Katie grew up in Grass Valley, California (Northern California) but when she was in high school, she and her family took frequent summer trips to Portland, Oregon. Ever since those trips to Portland, she has been particularly drawn to those less fortunate than herself. During that time, she spent time with old family friends Lynn and Dan Griffith, who had started an organization in Portland called “Blanket Coverage” that goes around the city at night, literally covering people sleeping outside in the cold with blankets. They are not striving to change “the system”, only to give those people who are cold and lonely some warmth and compassion. Watching and working with this selfless devotion, seeing how Lynn and Dan value people and the individual in every walk of life, left an impression on Katie that has never left her. After high school, she went to Wheaton to study Anthropology with the goal of working overseas, focusing on cross-cultural relations and working with the poor.
Like Lynn and Dan, Katie is drawn to grassroots stuff as opposed to larger, established organizations. Connecting to people on a relational, individual level is what moves and motivates Katie. She feels that all levels of work and commitment are invaluable and that each of us has unique strengths and visions that need to be respected in order for the big picture of change to occur, and that her place in this picture is at the most intimate, human level.
Katie moved to Boulder in 2006 with her family, and felt a need to reach out to the homeless population of nearly 900 individuals. About a year after their move to a new city, and while pregnant with her third child (Ruthie), Katie, her husband Mitch and their two young girls (Josie and Anna) started reaching out by making dinner and taking it to people who looked hungry. It wasn’t uncommon for the small family to make a big pot of soup, load it into their red wagon and walk down the Boulder Creek Path, sharing warm food and friendly conversation. They didn’t do this once a winter or here and there, they did it consistently with the intention of getting to know people and proving that they could be depended upon. Not just for food, but for connection, respect and friendship. Over the years, these relationships have allowed Katie and her family to more easily see the specific needs of specific individuals and they now provide support on even deeper, more rich levels. Recently, Katie and her family were able to provide temporary shelter for a pregnant, homeless friend. They took her in at the end of her pregnancy, offering their home as a peaceful setting for a midwife assisted birth and fed and nourished her in the first week of her new life with her baby. After their friend and her new baby left their home, Katie worked together with a system of supporters to provide meals for the new mother for a time after the birth. They continue to communicate on a regular basis and provide emotional support whenever needed. Katie knows that she would not have been able to provide this comfort for her friend if she hadn’t taken the time to get to know the homeless community intimately.
One morning over a cup of tea, I asked Katie a lot of questions about her inclusion of her young children in her work (Now ages 7, 6 and 4). I think that many of us, despite our best intentions, shy away from approaching the homeless because we fear them. We hear many stories about drug abuse and violence and those stories are hard to ignore, especially when we have our precious children in tow. If we are hesitant as adult individuals, add in the protective instincts we have for our children and there’s not much more we can muster other than the sporadic donation of spare change. The truth is though, that drug abuse and violence exist in almost all circles. The key to steering clear of dangerous situations is knowledge and familiarity and getting to know people is the best way to gain that. She stressed to me that this knowledge and familiarity is not something that happens overnight, but that small steps in a specific direction lead to trust and fears (on both sides) eventually breaking down. While she acknowledges that she stays vigilant: telling the kids to stick close by her, always having an eye on them, keeping her ears and eyes open for signals to whisk the kids away at any given moment and being sure to stay in public places where there is a strong police presence, Katie maintains that she almost always feels safe and protected while spending time with her homeless friends. She and her family are such a constant presence that a number of her homeless friends are able to let her know of possible dangers before she even has a chance to sense anything. In many cases, they are her first protection.
Many parents might choose to focus on the influences children in this situation are exposed to. Katie admitted that she probably has a higher threshold for things like swearing, for instance, but I specifically asked her if she worries about the exposure to the drug culture, since it is something that I know many of us worry about. She said that mostly, the kids don’t even notice the colorful language (or use it themselves) and consequences of drug addiction but that if and when they do, Katie and Mitch are sure to talk it all through carefully with the girls at home. Through these conversations, it has become clear to Katie that the kids don’t idealize the drug culture but see the pain surrounding it, which leads to sympathy and a natural inclination to exercise compassion.
This approach is certainly not for all of us but for those like Katie who deeply believe in the importance of human connection it is extremely meaningful. For Katie, it is not only significant for her own individual life journey but for her parenting journey as well. She sees and hears the results of her work every day through her girls. They end each day with a prayer for those friends who do not have a roof over their heads or a guaranteed meal. She proudly watches them take on time consuming tasks at the shelter without being asked and swims in the warmth of their smiles and giggles while sharing a meal with people who would otherwise be alone. These are just some of the many reasons she never questions the work she is doing.
If you would like to join Katie in her efforts, she encourages and reminds you to start small. If you feel compelled to get to know a group of people, but are feeling nervous she suggests just sitting and observing for a few weeks. Get to know the culture, the tendencies, the possible dangers and the needs before approaching and when you do approach, go with someone who is familiar with the culture. Volunteer to serve a meal and then go back…again and again and again. Watch and listen. Be kind and reserve judgment.
Katie is the volunteer coordinator for BOHO (Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow) here in Boulder, which provides shelter throughout the winter months (Emergency Warming Centers) at various congregations around the city. Although their focus is on shelter, most nights there is also food to share, which is either donated by the congregations or provided by an organization called FEED (Friends Encouraging Eating Daily). FEED provides food at the BOHO warming centers whenever possible, and they also offer Saturday meals (at noon) during the summer months by the main branch of the Boulder Public Library.. If you are interested in volunteering with BOHO or FEED, you can email Katie directly for information.
Maybe you can already sense this, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for Katie and the work she does. Although our passions lie in different areas, her devotion to hers inspires me to focus and work harder for the things I believe in deep in my heart. Thank you for everything you do, Katie.