Jean Kelly gives hope to Long Island’s homeless
Jean Kelly could have never imagined that a meeting in a home in Uniondale would change the course of her life. While the Glen Cove native joined that initial meeting of the Interfaith Nutrition Network (INN) as a concerned volunteer, in 1993 she left her career in advertising and marketing to take over as the nonprofit organization’s executive director. It’s a title she’s now held for 25 years.
“We’re helping communities treat people with dignity and respect, and provide for whatever they need without asking any questions,” said Kelly. “It’s tremendously rewarding. It’s such an incredible privilege.”
What began as a single soup kitchen operating out of a church in Hempstead in 1983 has grown into a network of 10 independently run soup kitchens in 14 locations across Long Island. Their flagship location in Hempstead is their largest, serving 300 to 400 guests every day. The INN also operates three emergency shelters—two for families and one for single men—and 20 long-term housing apartments.
Everything the INN does, whether it’s opening a soup kitchen, offering shower facilities, a free clothing boutique, or long-term housing, is in response to the needs they see. Women have played an important role in the INN’s mission; many of the volunteers and staff members are female.
“Women seem to have a natural caregiving tendency,” Kelly said. “After their children have grown up and they have finished whatever career they’re in, so many are incredibly skilled and competent and need to feel a sense of fulfillment and purpose like everyone does.”
It takes more than 1,500 volunteers to keep the INN’s operations running and Kelly said that many—whether they have been superintendents, businessowners, etc.—have said volunteering has been the most fulfilling work they’ve done.
“I find that hard to believe at first, but I believe it’s because we’re all here to be of service,” Kelly said. “This type of service is providing basic needs and it’s the Mount Everest of service. There’s nothing better that you can do than to keep someone alive.”
Kelly has countless stories of how INN volunteers have made a difference in someone’s life. She noted one example of how a man in Suffolk County had been planning to take his own life and that day he stepped into the INN for dinner.
“He had been on the street for 15 or 16 years and had planned everything out. He came to our soup kitchen the day he was going to kill himself, and somebody gave him a piece of chocolate cake and remembered his name. He was so shocked, he couldn’t believe anyone remembered who he was. He got into rehab and turned his life around,” said Kelly. “Each day we’re interacting with somebody and one little look or smile can be life-changing. We see that every day.”
Having worked with the hungry and homeless population for more than 30 years, Kelly said that it’s a group that is often underestimated.
“I feel that this population are the masters of the universe. They have such knowledge and strength. They may not have their basic needs, but they’re surviving,” said Kelly. “Their resiliency is inspiring to me. They still have an incredible sense of humor and it’s been such a privilege to know so many of the masters of the universe walking in our midst.”
Not only has the INN shaped Kelly’s professional life, but her personal one as well. It was in her early days as a volunteer coordinator that she met her husband Rob Kammerer, a fellow volunteer at the INN. The two are a perfect complement to each other, with Kammerer, a physics professor at Vaughn College, serving on the board of directors as chair of the development committee and chairing the organization’s largest fundraiser, the INNkeeper’s Ball.
“We both wanted to be our own person and we allow each other to be their own person,” Kelly said. “We’ve been truly honored and blessed to be of service to people who have shown up, and to be able to do this together is an additional blessing.”
While Kelly’s leadership—demonstrated first and foremost by her own willingness to serve—has played a key role in the INN’s ability to help the masses, she’s quick to point out it’s the volunteers that have made the difference.
“Without the thoughtfulness of Long Islanders of all faiths and backgrounds, The INN would never have started nor would it be able to be present each day to greet everyone who shows up in need with dignity, respect and unconditional love,” said Kelly. “Despite all the divisions that exist within society today there is still an innate goodness in all of our neighbors here on Long Island which continues to inspire and motivate all of us to be there when anyone is suffering from lack of their basic necessities. Together we can continue to make miracles happen and offer each other hope and inspiration.”
Learn more at the-inn.org.