By Katie Garwood | firstname.lastname@example.org
Kassy Guy-Johanessen stood in a Daytona Beach Barnes and Noble three years ago when a well-dressed woman, toting a Vera Bradley bag, approached her.
“Ms. Kassy, Ms. Kassy,” the woman called.
At first, Guy-Johanessen didn’t recognize the woman who called her name. Maybe, because the now-stylish and clean-cut woman with the designer handbag hadn’t always been that way.
The woman and her children had stayed in the STAR Center in Daytona Beach, a homeless shelter where Guy-Johanessen served as executive director.
The woman explained how she had gone back to school, got her teaching certificate and was remarried, all because of the work Guy-Johanessen had done for her at the STAR Center.
“You don’t understand, this is the reason my family is together,” the woman told Guy-Johanessen as she hugged her.
In Guy-Johanessen’s decade of working with the homeless, this story is one of her favorites.
“I don’t look for stories like that, but to have that happen it still makes me feel really good because I know I not only positively affected her, but her kids lives,” the 39-year-old said. “And it clearly wasn’t just me, it was the team we had at the STAR, but we were able to do something and make real change in this family’s life, and that’s how it starts.”
Now, Flagler College Class of ’99 alumna Guy-Johanessen works as the director of development at Home Again St. Johns, a non-profit that works to alleviate homelessness. In February, the organization broke ground on a seven-building complex that will include 100 apartments for the homeless.
“I’ve been focused the past ten years on homelessness and how we can really work towards a goal to end homelessness because it’s really something that doesn’t necessarily need to happen, unless someone chooses to be homeless which is really rare,” she said. “That’s where it get’s really personal for me, I’ve had family members [become homeless] and come very close myself.”
The STAR Center in Daytona Beach offered Guy-Johanessen a job as executive director in 2007, she took the job and learned the ropes as she went, and ended up falling in love with helping the homeless.
“You meet some interesting people, you meet people you would never imagine should or would be homeless but one small thing can mushroom into something bigger, or if they’ve had a job loss and they were living paycheck to paycheck and that was the one thing that broke the camel’s back and now they’re homeless,” she said. “You see how marginalized people become but how they never lose hope.”
Through working with various associations that help the homeless, it has become a cause that now, more than ever, is close to her heart. She sees homeless people as her equal, making sure they all know they matter just as much as anyone else in the community.
But, she hasn’t always seen it that way.
“At first, I had the judgment, the negative stereotypes of what homelessness is,” she said. “Over the years I’m glad to say it’s matured and changed, I’ve been able to see who homeless people really are, and it’s not ‘oh it’s them because they had a mental problem, a drug problem.’ No, it’s literally anyone.”
In Guy-Johanessen’s experience, most people see homelessness as something that could never happen to them and view homelessness with a “six-foot rule.”
“There’s times I go home and I sit with my kids and I’m playing with them and I think, I am so lucky because it could easily be me,” she said.
Family plays an important role in Guy-Johanessen’s personal life, which is common for many people. However, her passion for her work has a clear influence in her own family’s life as well.
On birthdays, around Christmas or whenever her children grow out of their clothes, she makes sure they put together old things they don’t wear or use anymore to donate to homeless organizations. Her 13-year-old daughter hosts needed item drives through her National Junior Honor Society at R.J. Murray Middle School. Her 4-year-old son’s daycare helped needy families during Christmas to make sure they have gifts. Even Guy-Johanessen’s mother-in-law donates her old puzzles to clients at Home Again after she’s completed them.
She and her family also set aside money to donate to other homeless associations because she has “an affinity for all the agencies” because they all serve different segments of the homeless population.
But, for Guy-Johanessen, the people who Home Again helps on a daily basis are practically family.
“To me, our homeless clients, our homeless children matter to me just as much as the rest of my family,” she said.
Although her job can get tough, focusing on the people she’s working to help can get her through the worst of days. She and Paul Coombes, the street outreach coordinator, call their bad days “three percent days” because 90 percent of the time, they love their jobs. But three percent of the time, they feel a bit differently.
“There are days it’s hard, and there are days I think I’m going to pull all my hair out slowly,” she said. “But there’s days when someone’s like ‘Oh, Ms. Kassy, I got a place to live, we’re doing really well’ … It’s stuff like that, that’s really, really amazing that if we weren’t here or if one of the other agencies weren’t here, that service wouldn’t be here.”
Any number of things can create a “three percent day” for Guy-Johanessen: something bad happening to a client, having trouble getting a client into the right services or housing program, having trouble with a grant or maybe, just the coffee spilling all over the desk.
But, she’s found a way to get through the tough days. A self-proclaimed Disney fanatic, Guy-Johanessen has figurines lining her desk. Although they’re small, they always help her in “finding the joy in each little part of my life and the lives here and the people we get to touch.”
One life that Guy-Johanessen was able to touch belongs to an 18-year-old girl who aged out of foster care after her parents left her behind. Now, because of the help she received from Home Again St. Johns, she’s getting her GED, looking to go to college and has her own apartment, which recently got WiFi, a “big deal” for her.
In this case, the girl affected Guy-Johanessen just as much as Guy-Johanessen affected her.
“I feel really close to her and I feel so honored to know her and have the opportunity to help her in this point in her life,” Guy-Johanessen said. “I can’t wait to see where she goes.”
Coombes calls the five months he’s spent working with Guy-Johanessen a “unique experience.”
“I would describe her as a very compassionate, dedicated person,” Coombes said. “It’s the way she interacts with people and tries to help everybody. She makes the office very entertaining.”
In at least two years, Home Again St. Johns will be able to touch even more lives. Construction is beginning on the seven-building complex that in addition to the apartments, will include a food bank, cafeteria, clinic and offices.
And although that won’t solve the homelessness problem completely, it will “take a big chunk” out of the homeless population by getting them into housing, back on their feet and eventually, back into the community again.
But Guy-Johanessen won’t stop at taking a “chunk” out of the homeless population.
“I know every day when I go to work, my goal is to work toward ending homelessness,” she said. “And I’ve said this 100 times and it sounds like I’ve got a catchphrase or something, it’s not, it’s truly how I feel. I want to end homelessness and put myself out of a job.”