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What's Up Magazine

Elizabeth Kinney

Jan 26, 2015 10:03AM ● By James Houck
Serving as the linchpin to an entire organization whose mission is to address homelessness and rehabilitate those it affects, Elizabeth Kinney is drawn in many directions on any given day. A board meeting to address funding; a facility tour with state officials; staff training; media meet and greets; even serving hot meals during a particularly busy day. What she looks forward to is…well, all of it. But what she, perhaps, looks forward to most are Friday mornings at the Light House Shelter, where she serves as Executive Director. Each Friday, she holds court over what she dubs, the “Breakfast Club”—a gathering of Light House residents during which stories are swapped, reflective moments shared, and a sense of togetherness presides. It’s the frontlines of a societal affliction—homelessness—and the ultimate way to connect with the men, women, and children of our communities who are reaching their hardest to clutch dignity and scrape their way out of the deepest depths of poverty.

Think you’ve had a hard day; think again. Homelessness is what brought Kinney to the brink of tears, with eyes misting, when she said in an empathetic, soft tone, “I just can’t imagine what it would be like to not have a pillow to lay your head upon at night—to not have a home.” It was her sincere response to my simple inquiry about her motivation—what drives her to steer this ship, the Light House Shelter in Annapolis?

Kinney’s Light House story begins well before her chairing the private funding side of the shelter’s capital campaign some six years ago (she raised $8.2 million). The result of that “Campaign for Shelter” is the new 24,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2010 near the intersection of West Street and Route 2 that I meet her in, the week before Thanksgiving. It was possibly the busiest time of the year for the shelter (no such thing as a slow time here). Nonetheless, Kinney and I find time to chat and it’s during our power hour that she tells me of cooking meals at the original shelter, located at inner West Street, with her three daughters and husband of 32 years, Doug. That’s was some 20 years ago and here she is today; tapped by the shelter’s board in 2011 to become its executive director.

“I’ve committed another two years,” Kinney says, “But I can’t imagine my life without some piece of work with the Light House. I hope to carve out a role moving forward.”

In her current role, Kinney balances philanthropic obligation and fiscal ambition. “I’m so lucky in this job. I’ve learned so much. Not just life stuff, but, like, running a business stuff,” she says laughing. “It’s been a blessing. I’ve immersed myself in the work.” With a staff of 32 at the Light House and an annual operating budget of about $2 million, less than 15 percent is administration cost. “We are lean and mean, but we have a constant fundraising focus,” Kinney enthuses. All other funds are funneled to the shelter’s many programs—direct resources addressing homelessness and empowerment, which includes: legal, financial, housing, and employment counseling; literacy; job training partnerships; substance abuse treatment and support; transportation assistance; and childcare, among more.

As I learn more about her background, its small wonder how Kinney is able to pull all the strings to make magic happen at the shelter 365 days per year. Though her early childhood was in the New England area, her family moved often (17 times she recalls) due to her father’s successful position as a chemical engineer. Though she dismisses the notion that her father’s transient career is a root cause of her care for the transient homeless today, it’s tough to overlook. In her words, however, she lived a privileged life, but “I come from a family where service was always at the core.”

Kinney attended Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where she met her husband, and earned a degree in Philosophy and English. The couple would settle on the Eastern Shore, before making a final move to Annapolis in 1981. Her early pursuits were actually entrepreneurial, having owned and operated a graphic arts firm, a retail store, and a health and wellness consulting company. As varied as those businesses were, Kinney’s belief of service to others was always at their core. And her free time paralleled her professional. Her “off hours” were often spent serving on the boards of local nonprofits, including Londontowne (she loves gardening by the way), the Key School, and the Maryland Social Services Board. Those board experiences would parlay into her becoming President of the Friends of the Light House Shelter Board (2004–2007) and President of the Annapolis Area Ministries Board for a couple years.

Hence, she was a natural selection to become Light House’s executive director. And as she explains, there still a lot of work to be done. “At any given time there are about 1,500 homeless in Anne Arundel County and approximately 300 of those are chronically homeless for more than a year.” To address this, Kinney plans to enact a five year strategic plan, currently in the planning phase. “We are looking at new revenue sources and social enterprise could be a great revenue generator and employment opportunity for those we serve. We’re heading down this path of employment initiatives, growing employer partnerships. And putting together our vision for housing; it’s the biggest need,” Kinney says.

To these ends, the Light House Shelter has developed several intriguing programs. One, called Building Employment Success Training, features two career tracks—culinary and facilities/maintenance—whose members pair with local businesses to train on the job. Another is a new building featuring a housing facility upstairs and a culinary enterprise downstairs, to be possibly named the “Light House Bistro,” which will be open to the public. The former has been running successfully for a couple years, the latter is still in development.

On a broader level of service, Kinney also chairs the Coalition to End Homelessness, a HUD-mandated continuum of care for how any jurisdiction is to offer services to end homelessness. “I love the work with the coalition, love the work with the state agencies,” she says. “It’s the big picture stuff. How do we do this better and more effectively as a community? I love being a part of system-wide thinking.”

And so far, the Light House system is working quite well. “The story of Light House is one of community. The right people showing up at the right time. The thing I’m most proud of in the last four years is staff development. One hundred percent of the staff is mission focused,” Kinney says emphatically. “We walk together focused on how to help people improve their lives. We’re doing some good work.”