Even when she interviewed to run the Franklin County Women’s Shelter, Josie Kirker was skeptical.
After all, how could she oversee a shelter that is so dependent on mostly volunteers and a 24/7 hotline?
“When I accepted the job, I was still skeptical,” said Josie, the shelter’s executive director since 2009.
“But after being here, it works so well. I say this and mean it genuinely –this is a community-based shelter where the community is really a part of us, and we’re part of the community.”
Josie, 35, oversees a women’s shelter that opened in 2008 and took in 185 homeless or struggling women and children, some more than once, through its three housing programs last year. The transitional living center, in a converted four-plex house on Third Street, has two bedrooms for each unit and a shared living room, kitchen and bathroom.
Josie’s office is on the bottom floor near the main entrance, putting her in constant contact with residents and volunteers in their daily ins and outs. She describes the shelter as one big family.
“We have this intimate, family-like environment. I think that’s what helps make us successful. We get to know them, and they trust us and tell us what’s going on. We don’t just give them a bed to sleep in.”
Kentucky is the seventh state Josie has called home in her life. She was born in Kansas, moved to Ohio in her youth, graduated from Valparaiso in Indiana in 1998, earned her master’s at Louisiana State University in 2000, got her first post-graduation job in Austin, Texas, and lived in South Carolina before moving here.
But it was a four-month stay in Namibia that taught Josie the importance of basic human needs.
She attended the overseas program during undergrad in 1996 and was one of 12 who lived with different families throughout the African nation to get a firsthand glimpse at another way of living.
Josie recalled staying with one family and living in “your typical African picture.”
“A hut, no running water, no electricity, no anything. It was amazing.”
And difficult, especially communicating with natives who spoke no English. She and her hosts spoke by pointing at things and naming them in their native tongues.
“They would point to a goat and tell me what a goat was in their language, and I would tell them what it was in English. There were little kids there. Playing with kids is universal. It went beyond language.”
She credits the stay in Namibia with shaping her views on life, saying she learned that people can live simpler lives than she was accustomed to in the United States.
The experience also taught her how to see a person’s needs and understand where they are in life.
“Because we traveled and lived with different families, to me it was just immersion in their culture and understanding where they are,” she explained.
“Here in Kentucky and each woman who comes through our door, our job is to understand who she is and where she is and not put our values and what we think is important on her. It’s to help her and really learn where she is.
“That has, I think, made me understand to really be effective, you’ve got to know where people are coming from.”
She hopes one day her 4-year-old son, Kellen, will be able to experience life overseas.
When she graduated from Valparaiso in 1998, Josie worked at the Department of Children and Family Services in Cleveland, Ohio, with children who were victims of sexual abuse.
She worked there about two years before leaving the emotional, high-stress environment. At 21, she handled cases “that you don’t even want to read about in the paper, much less be the one dealing with it.”
“I started having nightmares about the kids. That job needs to be out there because it’s a wonderful job, and we need social workers doing that, but it wasn’t me. I couldn’t be healthy as a person doing that because I couldn’t sleep at night.”
Josie decided to pursue a master’s at LSU, performing social research in one-on-one settings. She also worked on death penalty mitigation and research on intervention programs.
After earning her degree, Josie took a job with a community court in downtown Austin, Texas, that specialized in low-level felonies and misdemeanors. Defendants in the program would be sentenced to counseling, outpatient drug treatment or community service in lieu of jail or prison.
Josie developed her understanding of homelessness with the court.
“I worked a lot with the homeless population because lots of crimes that came into the court were for the low-level misdemeanors, and a lot of them were from the homeless population, so that’s kind of what started my understanding into the homeless world.”
She left Texas for South Carolina in 2003 and counseled children with serious emotional issues. After working there a few years, Josie came to Frankfort with her husband, Ryan, in 2006 and took a job with AmeriCorps, a domestic volunteer service similar to the Peace Corps.
Her new job placing AmeriCorps volunteers as housing counselors and construction assistants gave Josie a chance to explore every corner of the state, discovering the needs of Kentuckians from Paducah to Hazard.
“I really got to know the different areas of this state. Kentucky is so diverse. You almost feel like you’re going into a different world when you go from one place to another because the needs are so different.
“Especially in the homeless field, the needs of the homeless people in different places are so different.”
Taking on the shelter
Josie knew of the women’s shelter through AmeriCorps, where she met Jennifer Walling, the shelter’s director at the time. When Josie decided she wanted to spend more time raising her newborn son and find part-time work, that well-placed connection kept her in Frankfort.
“So Jen called me one day and I was telling her I had resigned and was looking for something part time, and she said, ‘This is such a coincidence. I’m resigning and leaving the shelter. You should put in an application here because it’s part-time, it’s a homeless shelter,’ and so the timing was just absolutely perfect,” she said of her hiring in 2009.
The shelter has a budget made up of funds from the city, $5,500, and county, $7,500, and private donations. More than 1,300 make up the shelter’s Brainy, Bodacious Women, a group that raises funds and volunteers for the shelter.
Josie works 25 hours a week and oversees three programs with the shelter: a 24-hour hotline for emergencies, homelessness prevention and the transitional living center, the shelter’s largest program.
Women can live up to a year at the center, where they get counseling on things like career skills and educational goals.
Residents must follow a long list of rules, including no alcohol or drugs. Josie says that while volunteers understand relapse is part of the recovery process, frequent abusers can’t stay.
“It’s really tough to ask them to walk out that door, and we can only hope that they maybe fall far enough down where they can really realize they need help and get to someone that can help them,” she says.
But most residents experience some degree of success. Josie recalls one who earned her GED at the shelter and graduated from college.
Another, a young mother, was skeptical of the shelter at first.
“The circumstances that brought her here, you could tell in the first few days that she was here, this was just a bed to sleep in,” Josie said. “She had her walls up, and as we got to know her, we realized that we could really help her and she realized we could help her beyond just a bed to sleep in.
“She’s now on her own, and she brought us back cookies and a big thank you note, telling us we’ll never know how much we changed her life by believing in her and being her support system.”
Josie has lived in Kentucky longer than any other state in her adult life. Though she says it almost feels like she and her family should raise stakes and ramble on, leaving the Bluegrass hasn’t been discussed.
“Frankfort feels like home to me,” she said. “It’s a strange thing after living in so many places, but there’s just something so unique and neat about Frankfort and about this community.”
There’s also something unique about the shelter, which operates different from others Josie has seen in Kentucky and Texas. Above all else, Josie says, the shelter gives needy women another chance and shows the community’s caring nature.
“I say this and mean it genuinely – this is a community-based shelter where the community is really a part of us and we’re part of the community. We have a volunteer that carries the hotline phone and answers calls from people having crises at 3 o’clock in the morning for free, and they don’t want anything back.
“They don’t want huge thanks. The community just cares, and being part of that just feels so good. I guess that’s what I get out of it – being part of something that’s so bigger than me and so bigger than just this building.
“It’s really the community culture of really believing in women and believing that women can succeed.”