This is Kathy. She's my friend. We've been friends for about four years now. She is thoughtful, observant, introspective, giving and kind. She is also stubborn. Very stubborn. I know this because, well, it takes one to know one, right?
Kathy comes from Clinton, Indiana. She served in the military and traveled the world doing technical engineering things that I don't really understand. She has one daughter named Angel. She named her daughter that because the nurses in the Military Base hospital in South Korea said when she was born, "Oh, Kathy! She looks like an angel!"
Kathy will be the first to tell you that she has had more than her fair share of difficulties. Homeless for many years, she struggled with family relationships that she felt powerless to understand. She learned through the tragic events in her life to trust no one. Based on several traumatic experiences she learned to believe that she wasn't worth much and that her opinion, experiences and dreams were not that valuable.
Kathy lives at The Palms Trailer Park on Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando, Florida. She has lived there for the most part of 20 years. When I started spending time at The Palms I would see Kathy come in and out of the neighborhood to go to the store. She kept her head down, walking very slowly, shuffling her feet as she went. She wore clothes that were disheveled and her long, white hair would blow in the wind. She didn't speak or make eye contact with any one and she seemed afraid. With the passing months she looked as though she might wither away from unhappiness.
One January morning she walked passed the little trailer at the front of the park where my office was and as I watched her shuffle past it looked as though she might die of despair. I don't know exactly what it was that made me think that. Maybe it was the look on her face or the way in which she carried herself. I burst into tears and a desperate prayer began to escape from my heart, "God, do you see Kathy? Do you know her?! Will you do something? Rescue her from her sadness, God! What are you waiting for?!"
About an hour later as I was sitting there at my laptop the door to the trailer squeaked open and Kathy poked her head in. I sat there in shock because she had never come near me, let alone even come close to the trailer I worked in. "I don't know why I am telling you this, " she said softly, with her eyes darting from me to the floor, "but I feel like I wanted to tell some one that I made a New Year's resolution to stop crying so much and to stop feeling sorry for myself." I stumbled over my words and invited her in to talk. She declined my offer and then she was gone.
A few days later she came back and asked if she could come in and use one of the computers that was in the office. She said she wanted to look for a job. She made it clear that she was uncomfortable living off of the charity of others and wanted to be able to provide for herself. For the next several weeks, Kathy came in to the computer center many hours every day, combing through want ads and employment websites. She was relentless. We would chat from time to time, but mostly she was quiet and kept to herself. Finally, after a few months, Kathy landed an interview for a position as a security officer. She got the job and started working the graveyard shift.
Soon after, Kathy came into the trailer and said, "I am so grateful that this little computer center was here to help me find a job! I want to be able to help others do the same thing." I asked her if she would be willing to be a Community Center Host and she agreed.
Over the next year, Kathy and I put together a small team of neighbors to become Hosts at the Center. We renovated trailer, added computers, held community listening meetings. It became a major social hotspot for the neighborhood. In that space we planned neighborhood projects and talked about our hopes and concerns for the neighborhood. Neighbors who typically ignored each other started talking.
It wasn't always pleasant! There were fights and arguments about what projects to do and how to do it. Kathy and I got into many disagreements and they usually revolved around the fact that both of us really wanted to trust each other but both felt scared that we might let the other down. There were days when I felt so discouraged and beaten-down by the nature of Community Development but Kathy was a constant reminder that empowering others to do what they're good at is worth the struggle. There were moments when Kathy would throw her hands up in frustration and say, "I don't know how to do this!" But then another neighbor would get a job or join the Neighborhood Planning Team and she would smile and say, "I never thought I was a patient person, but I guess I'm learning more and more about what I can actually do!"
It has been six months since I have moved offices and I am no longer at The Palms on a daily basis. But Kathy's presence there remains. Faithfully, she hosts the Community Center and participates in the community gardens and the holiday parties and the Asset Mapping of her neighborhood. Recently she posted this on my wall on Facebook --
When I asked her if I could write about her story as a leader in her neighborhood she said this ::
I am proud too, Kathy. Words can't describe how proud I am of the friendship we share, the work we've done, the way in which you've helped me learn how to follow. You are an incredible gift to me and to your neighbors.
We all have much to learn from Kathy.