It’s impossible to miss the beauty and history of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine (OTR) neighborhood. Lying just north of downtown, the community features ornate century-old churches whose spires rise above Italianate-style tenements and storefronts. Findlay Market, dating to 1852 and Ohio’s oldest continuously operated public market, teems with shoppers each weekend. Buildings are being renovated into lofts and trendy new restaurants are popping up. Music Hall and Memorial Hall are neighborhood jewels. Construction crews are busy installing tracks on main streets in the heart of OTR for Cincinnati’s new streetcar. After years of neglect, investors are pouring dollars and dreams into a revitalization of this urban community.
The new glitz of OTR may be creating headlines, but the glamour is not what Sister Kathleen Kelly is about. Not at all. Her focus is squarely on the six buildings and 150 residents of Tender Mercies, a non-profit in OTR that provides housing and supportive services to homeless people with mental disorders. For nearly 27 years, Sister Kathleen has been involved with the agency, first as human services coordinator for 18 years and then as a full-time volunteer for the last nine.
“I love it,” Sister Kathleen said. “I love to come in every day.”
Sister Kathleen’s primary job as a volunteer is overseeing a residential building of 12 women. The residents are independent, but Sister Kathleen is there as a resource. She works with residents who may need support with personal issues, budgeting or transportation. She assists them in reading documents they don’t understand and helps cover desk shifts at other buildings. Each December, she becomes the Christmas Lady and works with four parishes to collect gifts for each resident. It’s a job she took on shortly after joining Tender Mercies in 1987.
With a broad smile and friendly wave, Sister Kathleen spends her days scurrying between the Tender Mercies buildings doing what she does best: being a friend to everyone she meets. She visits with them, gives hugs and asks how they are doing. Every resident has story, a victim of mental illness compounded by bad choices. Sister Kathleen encourages them while commanding their respect.
“She wants to know everything about everybody,” said Jerome, a resident at Tender Mercies. “She’s always here and you can come talk with her. She comes down to everybody’s level.”
Working at Tender Mercies is Sister Kathleen’s second career, but it’s where she found her true calling.
She was raised in Cincinnati and graduated from Regina High School in Norwood. She was taught by the Sisters of the Precious Blood, but never grew up wanting to be a Sister.
“It dawned on me during a retreat in my senior year,” Sister Kathleen said. “All of a sudden, it came to me like a flash.”
After graduation, she worked for a year before entering the community. She eventually became a teacher in elementary and high schools in Ohio, Indiana, California and Colorado. Still, from the time she was young, she felt called to serve those in need.
“I always wanted to do social work,” she said. “I wanted to do some type of work with the poor and disadvantaged.”
By mid-1980s, open placement in the Sisters of the Precious Blood was a reality and Sister Kathleen began to look for a new ministry.
Around that time, Archdiocesan Father Chris Hall and two Franciscan priests were building a fledgling agency in OTR to help homeless people with mental illness. They started in 1985 by taking over operations of an apartment building and moving in residents. Father Chris was looking for someone to help residents obtain their Medicare/Medicaid and disability benefits. The position was needed, Sister Kathleen explained, because residents would ignore official notices of benefits and not seek to obtain them. She interviewed with Father Chris and was hired.
Soon Sister Kathleen was pleading, cajoling and coaxing residents to apply for their benefits. She would watch for notices and drive residents to their appointments. Such was her persistence that she sometimes found herself in places many people wouldn’t enter. She once got word that a former resident had been approved for benefits, but needed to follow up. She learned where the person was staying and ended up in the building’s hallway calling the person’s name. It didn’t matter that the place was a known crack house. Another time a resident had an appointment so Sister Kathleen went looking for him. She was told that he cleaned in a bar in exchange for free drinks. Though the bar was known as being extremely violent, she strolled through the door, found the man and got him to his session.
“I had to get him to his appointment. That was the important thing,” she said. “To me, it was a great big adventure.”
Gradually, she began to help the residents with personal issues, budgeting and teaching them skills. She became more involved in their lives. After 18 years, she decided it was time to turn the human services coordinator job over to someone else, so she retired to begin volunteering. That didn’t slow her down and co-workers see the fulfillment Sister Kathleen receives from her work.
“It’s her passion for the residents, her passion for the work scene,” said Stacey Witherspoon, a service coordinator at Tender Mercies who has worked with Sister Kathleen for the last 17 years. “You see (residents) succeed and it’s rewarding. We do this for a reason.”
As one of the longest serving employees/volunteers at Tender Mercies, staffers often rely on Sister Kathleen’s institutional knowledge. Her advice on past programs is invaluable when the agency is planning future initiatives, said Trish Hibbitt, human resources manager at Tender Mercies.
In recognition of Sister Kathleen’s service, Tender Mercies created the Sister Kathleen Kelly Award in 2013 and named her its first recipient. The award will be given to employees or volunteers who meet three of the four Tender Mercies criteria: community partner, neighborhood partner, employee of the year or volunteer of the year. When the agency’s original building on Race Street is eventually renovated, it will be renamed in honor of Sister Kathleen and Marcia Spaeth, a founding board member of Tender Mercies, former full-time volunteer and former Chief Executive Officer of the agency.
Back at her office in the Race Street building, Sister Kathleen chats with a resident who is watching Ohio State and Dayton play in the NCAA basketball tournament. The woman had been busy applying for management jobs. Sister Kathleen offers her little pep talk.
Those are the moments that give Sister Kathleen satisfaction and help her grow spiritually. They are the moments she sees God’s hand in her work.
“These residents are so spiritual,” Sister Kathleen said. “They have so much faith in God, and anything that happens, they accept that it’s from God and God will help them through it. They just teach me so much.”
Story and photos by Dave Eck