Penny Kievet had waited a month for that simple word. A month for the woman to finally acknowledge her.
Their first meeting was at a Saturday brunch for the City Rescue Mission’s LifeBuilders program.
Kievet was the agency’s director of development. The woman was a victim of sexual abuse, who had spent years masking her pain through drug addiction and turning to prostitution to pay for the crack cocaine she craved.
“It was clear she did not want to talk to me or to anybody,” Kievet said. “She had a big chip on her shoulder.”
A month later at lunch, when Kievet said hello, she got a hello back.
“It was the first time she ever acknowledged me as a human being,” Kievet said.
She took that as an invitation to share a meal with her.
They shared more than that. They shared the unspoken moment of the chip starting to slowly fall.
Waiting a month for anything is tough for Kievet, who describes herself as a “results kind of person.”
But turning lives around isn’t done in a matter of hours or weeks. The work at the City Rescue Mission takes months, sometimes years.
The agency teaches homeless people how to support themselves, helps addicts learn to stay sober and guides broken families as they rebuild.
That pace can be a real test for Kievet, but the payoff is worth it.
“There’s nothing like watching hope fill the eyes of the hopeless,” she said.
That payoff is one of the reasons Kievet, 64, wanted to be the agency’s executive director, a role she assumed last month. She had been the interim leader since June, when her predecessor took a job at a Maryland nonprofit.
Kievet had been the agency’s director of development since 2009. In that role, she focused on fundraising, public relations, media relations, volunteers and major gift processing.
She started a golf tournament, spent more time courting donors and increased the involvement with the media.
All that helped bring in $3.5 million in direct donations last year, a 15 percent increase over when she started. That’s more than half of the agency’s $6 million annual budget.
The faith-based agency chooses not to take tax dollars, she said, often because they come with strings attached. Plus, Kievet said, the agency doesn’t see homelessness as a city, state or federal government obligation.
“Homelessness is a social issue,” she said. “We believe we are called to help the needy and the poor. … We exist to transform lives through Jesus Christ.”
Kievet said the agency chooses to let like-minded people support the efforts.
Setting goals early on
Kievet’s work ethic carried over in her interim time as executive director, when she and senior staff created a series of goals that kicked off Oct. 1. Among the highlights cited by Kievet:
• With help from University of North Florida students, the staff has implemented new nutritional guidelines, including adding more fruits and vegetables to the 750 meals served each night.
• Exercise programs have been added for clients in the LifeBuilders program.
• More attention is being spent on endowments and finding new contributors to complement the 30,000 active donors that Kievet said the agency has.
That proactive approach and determination are among the reasons Kievet was given the job, board Chairman Jim Dickenson said.
Board members knew her success in fundraising, her expertise in strategic planning and her ability to manage people.
“When she took on the interim role, she saw it as an opportunity and we liked that,” he said.
Board members liked it so much, they decided not to do an external search.
When Dickenson offered her the job, Kievet said, “My eyes welled up a little bit.”
Her work ahead
Kievet is looking forward to continuing the work she’s started as the leader of the agency’s 55-person staff and its three campuses. She’s also looking forward to more transformations.
As for the woman who originally snubbed Kievet, then shared lunch with her: She has completed her recovery program, is healthy and married with two children. She also has an “awesome” job, Kievet said.
The woman recently picked up a part-time job a couple of nights a week — working as a resident assistant at the City Rescue Mission.
Kievet was proud to welcome her back.
Never had hello sounded so good.
Never had hello sounded so good.