For Jay Kelekian, Dorothy Day's philosophy is apparent in daily services at DDH.
How did you initially become involved with Dorothy Day House? What made you decide to join the Board?
Well, I had read about and knew about Dorothy Day – and saw the name on the DDH truck! There was that connection. I have always been interested in working on issues related to affordable housing, homelessness prevention and the like. I became very aware and interested first in international hunger issues, and then local hunger issues. I read ‘The Other America’ in high school, and it was a formative experience for me.
I ultimately ended up going to Cal to study Development Studies – At the time, it was one of only three schools that had that subject area major. A lot of the anti-hunger movement in the 60’s and 70’s changed the focus and approach of that field of study – it showed that it is not a question of scarcity, it is a question of resource allocation. With that knowledge, you can no longer take the position that hunger and poverty is inevitably always going to exist - it is a choice we make individually and collectively.
So, I decided to dedicate my life and my work to helping solve this problem. After receiving my Masters Degree in Public Administration (with a focus on nonprofits) I worked on policy level for a long time – primarily focusing on affordable housing and housing security issues at the Rent Board and with some non profits. A big inspiration for me has been the idea of building healthy communities. So, in addition to working for the Rent Board and focusing on housing I worked in the Parks Department. I was the first administrative staff person when we created the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department in 1994. Part of what I really loved about that job was that it was focusing on staffing commissions and overseeing the public process of community involvement. I really believe community based groups are essential and relish working in the community – parks and homes are the foundations of communities and allows them to be healthy. That is my foundational interest in the work of DDH.
What brought me directly to Dorothy Day House was my son. The summer before he started 11th grade he wanted to volunteer, so I gave him some options and he chose Dorothy Day House. It happened to be right where I parked (I worked for the city at the time) – so I was already familiar with the folks who ran the organization. My son liked the philosophical idea of the organization (as did I), so we started volunteering in the morning to prepare and serve breakfast. I loved it, so even after he went off to college, I stayed! I’ve been here for over six years now and love it.
It sounds like you have a lot of experience with a lot of social service organizations. What keeps you coming back to Dorothy Day House in particular?
You know, the organizations that I have stayed involved in throughout the years are true to their philosophy. DDH wasn’t just named after Dorothy Day – it puts a real, concerted effort into fulfilling Dorothy Day’s way of approaching issues and approaching people.
What I’ve loved about it here is that respect and dignity are at the core of all services here. The last few years have been hard (due to the COVID crisis), and there is still some human contact but there is less. Volunteering here allows you to be on a first name basis with many individuals that previously were just faces (or shapes) on the street.
Many times, the connection and familiarity are so strong that people in line would make their selections based on who was there and who was cooking. We always try to provide as much dignity, choice, and make it something special as much as possible – because it might be the only special thing that happens in someone’s day.
So, for instance, pre-covid, when I was the cook, I’d try to have 2 or 3 different breads available as opposed to just one or have a savory and a sweet selection for breakfast – little things like that allow us to retain the dignity and choice of those who need us. Maybe it is four people would want rye out of the hundreds we serve, but they had the ability to pick what they preferred. That matters. It matters that they are being served and catered to instead of having meals thrown at them.
That’s an essential part of how everyone I worked with at Dorothy Day approaches the work we do here. What has kept me here is that aspect – that DDH really is trying to live up to those values of Dorothy Day herself - not just responding to a person in an emergency but adding the value of dignity and respect. It also is a very humanizing experience, to see individuals every week who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. In having the opportunity to interact with them, homelessness itself ceases to be an abstraction and you can truly build relationships with the people we serve.
One person came to me once and said “I don’t accept charity, so every week I am going to tell you a joke. That’s my payment for my meal.” After a few weeks of this happening, I remembered I had this huge book of corny jokes that I thought he would like, so I brought this in for him and he practically cried – he couldn’t believe I brought this in for him.
The heart of Dorothy Day House is our effort to make real connections – to do that we meet people where they are. We obviously have rules because we are trying to build a community – but our focus is more on ensuring that our participants really understand why our rules are in place and training our staff to have a reasonable level of flexibility. This type of approach helps us avoid conflict. If people understand why there’s a rule and how it affects other people they are more likely to support that, and the community supports that.
An example of our flexibility is that 2 weeks in a row this one person came almost an hour late. This was at the beginning of the pandemic, and he would travel by BART to Berkeley because the line for the kitchen in San Francisco was 3 blocks long. That is not someone sauntering in to get a meal, that is someone really working on getting here to have breakfast. We never know why somebody is acting or behaving the way they do until you’ve lived their life or been in their shoes, and these instances are a concrete reminder of that.
Since you have been involved with Dorothy Day House for the past six years, the organization has grown at an incredibly fast rate. What function do you see yourself serving on the Board?
One of my favorite parts about this organization is that Dorothy Day House keeps evolving while at the same time staying true to some relatively simple principles – those are love, respect, and meeting people where they are at. I view my part on the board as ensuring we do not lose focus on those underlying principles. Even wonderful people have different approaches to things and something that’s important to me is retaining those original values. I view my role on the board as ensuring we don’t become mechanistic. If a person comes late but needs a meal, we will help them to the best of our ability with whatever we had leftover.
More specifically, As a Board member, I want to make sure I can do 2 things:
Philosophically speaking, I want to make sure we don’t lose that focus on our original values and we regularly remind ourselves of that as a board.
I have about 35 years as an administrator, I worked with a couple NPOs before the city job and as a result I want to make sure the administrative perspective is represented. I guess I want to be the ‘critical eye’ for whether something is sustainable.
Also, I really like cooking!
In addition to your work on our Board and your work as a volunteer, you are also a donor! You have provided a match for our 10k in 10 days campaign to double the impact of the first $5,000 raised. What drives you to be a donor to Dorothy Day House?
Everybody I know who gives to an organization is usually concerned with where their money is going – and there is just no way if you work or volunteer at Dorothy Day House that you don’t see that that is the case. Every dollar from every contributor we receive goes directly to our programs and has an impact that is tenfold. Something I also love about the work here is how it really is a perfect marriage of humanitarianism and eco friendly behavior. Even better than composting is finding a use for food before it becomes waste. The staff here are really masters of that – last year we used almost 120,000 pounds of recovered food. The dollars are spent wisely, and we help conserve and be ecologically friendly throughout the process.
If you can give, whatever you give, you can be secure knowing that it is going to be extended far beyond just the match I was able to provide. The true impact of each dollar will be more like threefold - just based on the way Dorothy Day House does business.
You can help Dorothy Day House maintain the choice and dignity of each person that comes through our doors. Will you consider contributing to our 10k in 10 Days challenge? You can also set up your own fundraiser with the following link.