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LIVING ON PURPOSE: King is an advocate for Hope; Woman works to help others at Bemidji's Village of Hope

Kelly King works at the front desk of the Village of Hope. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI -- Ten years ago, Kelly King turned to Bemidji's Village of Hope, homeless and carrying her infant grandson.

Homelessness is not an issue a lot of people fully understand, or want to acknowledge; King's experience shaped the course of her life. Today, she works full-time at Village of Hope as an advocate for others seeking shelter.

King is often the first person people talk to when they come to the village, and she makes sure to share her own experiences. "When I tell them that I have been here, and I have been homeless, it puts them at ease. I'm not somebody that doesn't know what you're going through -- being stressed out and overwhelmed and trying to find a safe place for you and your family. It gives them a little more comfort" she says.

It also gives them hope that there's a better future ahead. "People look at me and they're amazed when I tell them I've been a tenant here." she says. "I guess you could call me a graduate of the Village of Hope."

An enrolled Red Lake Band member, King was born in Red Lake, but grew up in Washington state. King was the oldest of three children and raised by a single mom. After she had her first child, she moved back to Red Lake to be with family. "My grandma got sick. She wanted to see me and my son, so I came back and I took care of her for her remaining days."

After her grandmother passed, King's family expanded to include three more children. She was a stay-at-home mom for years, before her kids grew up and she moved back to Washington to work as an office manager for a landscaping company. Sickness once again brought her to Red Lake when she cared for her mother, who was dying from cancer, until the end. With little money, no job in Washington to return to, and no place to go, King stayed with different friends and family in Bemidji while trying to figure out what to do next.

Then, unexpectedly, King found herself as the primary caretaker of her three-month-old grandson, who had severe respiratory problems. She realized things needed to change, fast. "I knew I needed someplace stable," she says. "I couldn't be couch-hopping with him."

She applied and received approval for subsidized housing; but a place wasn't immediately available. So she sought temporary shelter at the Village of Hope. "I just needed a place to stay

for me and my grandson until I got a house." The move was initially very hard. "I felt like I had failed by being homeless, by not having a home for my grandson. But the staff here are so awesome. They helped me a lot."

With their help, and the assistance of Rural Minnesota CEP, King received job counseling and eventually took a position as an advocate at the Village of Hope, receiving training to handle crisis calls, meet with families, assist in the application process, determine eligibility and coordinate introductory meetings.

She relishes her ability to empower others, and provide a stable life for her grandson. "He's my motivation. He's my little man," she says proudly. "I want more for him than what I had when I was growing up. And I want more for him than I was able to give my children. It's like a second chance to better our family.

"We are a homeless rehabilitation center, not just a homeless center," she says. The Village is open to individuals or couples who have children, or women who are pregnant. Tenants typically can stay only eight weeks at the Village, and during that time they must attend morning meetings, follow curfew, do assigned chores, have weekly case management appointments, and consistently engage in job and housing searches. "We try to motivate people and figure out where their strengths are."

The staff at the Village also work to improve the lives of tenants, long-term. "If residents have crisis issues -- issues that they haven't dealt with from their childhood, mental health issues, or other issues, we give them information to get them help to try to deal with things. We have a trauma coordinator and whatever they feel they need help with, that's what we try to provide."

If residents don't meet the mandatory requirements, they are evicted, but King says such incidents are rare. "Most people want help and are willing to do what they need to do to get help. What you put into it is what you get out of it. If you come in, and you're positive, and you really want to better your situation, then that is what's going to happen."

According to King, the biggest benefit most tenants receive is information. "A lot of families coming here don't know about some of the programs and the resources that can help them.

"I think the biggest misconception about homelessness is that it is a choice, that people want to be homeless. Nobody wants to be homeless. I didn't want to be homeless and none of our tenants here want to be homeless."

Many people also assume that only the destitute lack a place to live. "You think of somebody who is homeless, and you think of somebody who has nothing. And that's not necessarily true. Some of our families who come here, they have their own vehicles and they have jobs. They have incentive and they just need a little bit of extra help."

That extra help is what the Village of Hope is designed to provide.

Despite the good the Village does, King wishes more help were available. "The hardest part of my job is when someone comes in crying, and tells you they have no safe place for their family. I have to tell them that they're on a waiting list, and that there's nothing that I can do. I can't make the list go any faster. I can't say: 'You can come here and stay right now,' and usually that's what they are needing -- immediate shelter."

King says the Village's typical waiting list is one to two months, and their six separate apartment units are always full. Currently, there are eleven families on their waiting list.

King says there are few other options available to people needing shelter. "There's only the Servants of Shelter program in the winter, and that only is open to 20 individuals at a time, and the wet shelter at the People's Church of Bemidji."

King's plea to the Bemidji community is this: "We need more help. We need to raise more funds so there will be more help for the people and families who need it."

Despite all the hardships King sees firsthand, she says she stays inspired by "the people who come through, successfully complete our program, and find someplace safe and affordable for their families."

For her, the best part of working at the Village "is seeing the kids happy and healthy, and seeing the looks on the tenants' faces when they know they're getting their own place. It's just awesome because they get so much joy out of it. That's what we're all about: helping you get from where you're at, to where you want to be."

At that moment, a little girl toddles up to King. "Hi, how are you?" she coos, as King picks her up and receives a big hug. "And the hugs," King laughs. "That's another great part of the job. I just love the hugs."

Brooke's tips for applying Kings wisdom to your life:

Don't hesitate to ask for help when you need it: Everyone falls on hard times. Everyone, at one point or another, needs some kind of assistance. Sometimes it takes the most courage to recognize when you need help, then ask for it, even if it feels humbling. King admits that was difficult for her, but doing so changed her life for the better, and put her in a position where she can help others in times of need.

Let the past inform, but not define, you: Being homeless is something that King will never forget, but she didn't let that experience hold her back or define her worth. Instead, she's used what she learned from that time to help others create a better future.

Serve something bigger than yourself: King's greatest motivation for improving her life situation was caring for her young grandson. She wanted to give him a better life than she or her own children had experienced. Now that she's on her feet, she also gets a large sense of joy and purpose in serving others in need.

Brooke Wichmann is a certified conflict management coach and life coach, with a master's degree in peace education. She owns Conscious Conflict Solutions and provides training, coaching, and other services to individuals and organizations. You can contact her at Brooke@ConsciousConflictSolutions.com