Going to college is a daunting challenge, but for many people in Snohomish County, the stress of academics is compounded by homelessness.
The Jean Kim Foundation for Homeless Education, a 501(c) 3 founded by Rev. Dr. Jean Kim, is dedicated to empowering the local homeless population by helping them achieve their academic and career training goals.
The Lynnwood-based foundation is celebrating two years of service this month, and will honor the success of students assisted by the foundation during a fundraising dinner Saturday, Sept. 16 from 6-8:30 p.m. at Korean United Presbyterian Church, 8506 238th St. S.W., in Edmonds.
The program will consist of dinner and entertainment. Scheduled guest speakers include Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith, Pastor and Lynnwood City Councilmember Chris Boyer and Edmonds Community College President Dr. Jean Hernandez.
Last week, Kim gathered with students and foundation volunteers prior to a community dinner at Maplewood Presbyterian Church. She shared her story and discussed the foundation’s scope and impact on local homeless students.
“I have a very strong conviction that education cannot only change financial status, it changes personality, it enhances a person’s behavior,” Kim explained, as the choir warmed up down the hall. “It changes everything, that’s my strong belief.”
Kim was born the youngest of three in 1935 to a wealthy Korean family. “I was raised like a little princess,” she wrote in an essay titled “My Story: Why I Serve the Homeless People.”
In 1946 Kim’s family was forced to flee the North Korean Communist regime, living in exile as refugees. They continued to move around South Korea during the Korean War, running from the occupying Communist army.
“I am one of the millions of lives saved by the sacrifice of American soldiers,” she wrote in her essay. Poverty, grief and loss of family surrounded her like a fog.
Despite these harsh conditions, Kim focused on getting a good education in order to become financially stable and independent. “Those experiences prepared me to stand and walk with those who suffer,” she said.
By the 1960s, Kim received bachelor of arts degrees in theology and English literature. Kim lived what she calls ‘Jesus’ dream,’ serving and loving the poor.
When she and her husband immigrated to the United States in 1970, she had to choose whether to follow the American dream — working alongside her husband in his business — or the dream of caring for the poor, sick and abandoned.
Kim obtained her master’s degree in social work in 1977, was ordained at 52 years old and eventually earned her Doctor of Ministry degree at age 71. Kim said she came to this conclusion about those who are homeless and less fortunate: “Had they acquired college education and job skills, they wouldn’t have to depend on welfare and food stamps. We are living in a day and age that will not allow us to survive if we don’t get an education.”
The Jean Kim Foundation, established in 2015, offers six options to support students who are currently homeless or at risk of homelessness. This includes helping students enroll in college and connecting them to apprenticeship, vocational skills and literacy programs.
The foundation also runs Shepherd’s Village, which provides temporary housing for homeless students on land donated by Lynnwood’s Good Shepherd Baptist Church.
The village is a convenient 10-minute walk from Edmonds Community College, which is fortunate for social services student and Village resident Donna Connor.
In the past, Connor struggled with substance abuse and became homeless because of it. “Really homeless, living on the cement,” she asserted. Eventually Connor found programs that helped get her back on her feet
Four quarters ago, Connor enrolled at Edmonds Community College, and completed her FAFSA financial aid form at the Lynnwood Library with the help of Rev. Kim.
On April 7, Connor relapsed and had a drink at the clean and sober house she was living in. She was kicked out, and called Kim for support.
“I got a scolding,” Connor remembered. “She said, ‘Now see what you did? You chose to drink a pint of vodka, and that’s the result!’” After that, Kim contacted the Shepherd’s Village and set up housing for Connor.
Even though the Village has its own ups and downs, Connor has enjoyed living there. Right now, everything is going very smoothly. “It’s a safe haven for me,” she explained. “When you’re out there in the elements, you have to be alert and you have to be street smart.”
With the support of Kim’s foundation, Connor is completing a two-year program in social services. She hopes to work in the field as an advocate for disabled homeless people, helping them find available public and private resources. “There is so much information out there that they never receive,” she said.
Another Shepherd’s Village student is 18-year-old Noah Proctor, who moved into Shepherd’s Village three weeks ago. For the last year, he and his parents have been homeless. They’ve lived in their car and other temporary lodgings, including a barn with no power and rats nesting in the basement.
“It’s hard because when I tell most people I’m homeless, the first thing they think of is junkie,” Proctor said. “Now I have a secure and steady place.”
The Village also offers power, Wi-Fi, a place to study, a locked storage closet for valuables and a portable toilet. Something as simple as access to a power outlet has dramatically changed Proctor’s productivity at school.
“Last year my computer was almost dead every single period, because I had no place to charge it,” Proctor explained. He is a student at Lynnwood High School, which requires students to use a district-issued Chromebook as part of their coursework. Normally the foundation doesn’t assist high school students, but Kim made a special exception for Proctor.
Residents pitch in to clean the Village on Saturdays, emptying the trash bins, pulling weeds and taking turns cleaning the restroom. Noah explained that sleeping in his tent, pitched on a raised wood palette, is much more comfortable than sleeping in a car because his body isn’t pinched in an uncomfortable V-angle.
“It took me about a week to get used to, but now it’s very comfortable and nice.” The foundation also provided Proctor with a clean, heavy-duty sleeping bag, air mattress and pillow, a nightlight and a box for his clothes and belongings.
Perhaps the biggest plus for Proctor is the safe environment that allows him to come out of his “fight or flight” mode. The Village is locked or monitored at all times, and has been constructed securely. “There’s a fence, a pretty good thick one that Tony built,” Proctor said.
Tony is Tony Thompson, one of Rev. Kim’s closest assistants and her go-to guy. “My phone goes off and I answer, ‘Hi Jean, what’s up?’” Thompson joked.
Thompson has known Kim for a year and a half, first volunteering as a tutor for the foundation and later moving his way into administrative chores.
One day, talk of Shepherd’s Village surfaced. Thompson completed the initial designs with the help of other parties, coordinated the construction effort, dug the trench for the power line and even set up the Wi-Fi.
Thompson’s been staying at the Village since day one, sleeping in one of the on-site tents. He’s a “Sheriff Andy” of sorts, functioning as everything from personal mentor to security provider.
“I try to keep the peace, keep motivation going,” Thompson stated matter-of-factly. “We’ve gone through a lot of changes. A few people. Tenants in and out. Some good, some bad — to be expected.”
Before volunteering with the foundation,Thompson served a stint in the Navy, was a commercial driver and worked as an auto technician for over two decades — including five years at Lynnwood Honda.
The foundation employs no paid staff — all positions are local volunteers. “I cannot emphasize enough how much support we get from the community,” Kim said. The common room in Shepherd’s Village was donated by a community member, completely preconstructed.
“I didn’t have this in my mind in the beginning,” Kim said of the Village. Some of the college students she was helping through the foundation, she recalled,were living and sleeping on the street through the rainy and wet seasons. “My heart broke at that,” she said.
Kim approached Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith in late 2016 to ask for a spot to pitch five tents for temporary homeless student housing. Smith reached out to the Good Shepherd Baptist Church on 196th Street Southwest, and the church agreed to make space for the tents on their property.
The outlook for future housing, however, looks grim to many residents in temporary situations. People applying for Section 8 housing assistance in Snohomish County typically go on a waitlist for five years before receiving any help.
“Even if someone has income, rents are skyrocketing,” Kim pointed out. “A lot of my people with SSI or state assistance check in their hands are homeless.” Background checks, hefty deposits and other rental or legal barriers also keep many would-be renters from affording an apartment.
“Once you fall into homelessness, it is almost impossible to get out of it … Housing is very depressing, but our people have hope in their education, hoping that education will help them to find better work and a better future,” Kim added.
To learn more about the Jean Kim Foundation’s two-year celebratory dinner Sept. 16, or to make a donation to the foundation, contact 425-563-3006 or email [email protected].
The foundation is currently seeking community donations in order to upgrade accommodations at Shepherd’s Village from outdoor tents into tiny houses.
More information on the Jean Kim Foundation for Homeless Education can be found at jeankimfoundation.org.
— Story and photos by Thomas Fairchild