A Tender Heart Goes Above and Beyond to Help Unhoused Community Members

Daily Point of Light # 7541 Apr 28, 2023

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Kay Wilson-Bolton. April is Global Volunteer Month, a global movement to recognize volunteers and people who actively support their communities, whether through volunteerism or other elements around the Points of Light Civic Circle®, like Kay. Read her story, and join the Global Volunteer Month celebration.

On a drizzly Christmas Eve morning in 2008, a man experiencing homelessness was found dead in a local church. He, along with several others, had been escorted into the church undercover by the janitor. The Chaplain on call that day with the Ventura County Fire Department was Kay Wilson-Bolton. As a result of this tragedy, Kay took a special interest in the issue of homelessness in her community, which happened to coincide with a period of economic struggle in California. Kay delved into the causes of homelessness and how this devastation can be exacerbated by drug and alcohol addiction. Kay took on a full-time job, without pay, to champion the cause of her community’s most underresourced people. She was instrumental in opening a year-round family shelter, food pantries, food redistribution, shower and laundry program, and she provided case management for people struggling with addiction.  

What inspires you to volunteer? 

 In my work today, I see hopelessness and hope in the same person. I see failures turned into successes. I see healing come from sickness and addiction. We carry on because people need us to care when they don’t, or can’t. 

Describe your volunteer role with SPIRIT. 

I am the full-time volunteer director. The organization began in 2002 with the intent of doing something good for the community. We found our purpose on Christmas Eve morning in 2008 when we learned that an unhoused man had died in one of our churches. I grew up with the organization, I have been able to handle two full time jobs. My career job is in real estate which has given me the flexibility in time to do both.

Kay Wilson-Bolton is the volunteer director of SPIRIT, a nonprofit providing services to unhoused individuals./Courtesy Kay Wilson-Bolton

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work? 

There is great reward in helping people find housing, do well in treatment, reunite with family, work off court fines, get their driver’s license back, get dentures and glasses, achieve anything they ever dreamed of, and discover they can do what they thought they couldn’t. The reward is also found in hiring people who have life experience and watching them work gently and firmly with people because of what they already know about life. 

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer? 

I’ve learned anything is possible if you believe in it and work at it. I’ve learned that miracles happen. I’ve also learned that people have the right to make whatever choice they want and live with the circumstances that follow. I’ve cried as I’ve watched people throw away their last chance at the one opportunity they longed for. I’ve lost sleep wondering where they are now and if they are still alive. I’ve learned I cannot make something happen in exchange for their substance abuse. Only they can do it, 

Are there any future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about? 

“Launch” is our next phase of helping people fight their way out of homelessness. Finding the unhoused people in our community is where we start. Ending and preventing homelessness is the beginning of a whole and productive life. None of us are fulfilled until we can see and develop our dreams, experience success, realize our full potential and replicate ourselves by mentoring the next generation. 

It starts with the pre-launch phase of this program to get people ready to live outside Harvard shelter. Spirit of Santa Paula would be the first in Ventura County to implement such an aggressive and comprehensive program. We are eminently qualified, having 15 years of experience serving our neighbors experiencing homelessness, plus many successful years in business and community activism. 

We have developed two primary programs to support our neighbors: “Harvard,” our Year-Round Homeless Family Shelter, and Street Outreach is designed to connect and care for people on the streets. We also offer weekly food pantries which serve 4,000-5,000 of our unhoused neighbors weekly with groceries so they can allocate funds to housing instead. 

For years, we have known we must take our efforts to the next huge step, creating a trajectory from dependency to prosperity. 

Kay with Javier, who benefits from Street Outreach, one of SPIRIT’s programs where daily food supplies, hot meals, fruits and vegetables are available for people who need them./Courtesy Kay Wilson-Bolton

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about? 

In my world view, getting involved is a good way to say thanks to people who came alongside us in our lives during our own times of need. It could have been a thoughtful neighbor, a teacher or friend who saw the best in us and tried to fill the gap we were in at the time. I like to suggest people go in the direction that makes their heart beat. It could be working with lost or stray animals, foster children, seniors in residential care facilities, teens in recovery homes or caring for neighborhood parks or gardens. Some like to pay in forward for some future benefit. For me, paying back is its own reward. 

What do you want people to learn from your story? 

Each of us has the power within us to do something great. What starts with something sorrowful can turn into something beautiful. Each of us has the power within us to inspire others to follow us, learn to lead or to create opportunities for another person. This type of work requires extreme patience and gentle encouragement. People experiencing homelessness may be economically vulnerable, but they’re extremely resilient. However, their lifespan may be shortened due to the hardships of life. Help them make the most of each day. 

Join the Global Volunteer Month celebration! Download our Global Volunteer Month toolkits and access resources to encourage volunteerism and civic action, recognize volunteers, and raise awareness for your organization’s needs and funding opportunities.   

Jarmila Gorman