Published: July 31, 2014
They arrived en masse, 560 strong, on the sunny early morning on July 24and they shut down an entire city block. The crowd filled a giant white party tent on Vermijo Avenue between Weber Street and Wahsatch Avenue.
It was a morning for the community to go onto the street to raise money, almost $69,000, for Urban Peak Colorado Springs, which provides services to and helps get homeless youth off the street. The inspiring morning, in city councilwoman Jan Martin's words, "says so much about this city."
Martin and others would later learn the story of the used tomato container that the nonprofit's executive director Shawna Kemppainen shared on Facebook as her favorite donation that morning. As people entered the "Off The Street" tent, a woman rushed up and handed an Urban Peak board member the tomato container, which now contained loose change. She said her children heard about the breakfast on the radio and wanted to help kids who are homeless. They handed their mom their savings: $11.40. "Simple generosity is beautiful," posted Kemppainen.
Another touching moment was when a mother and her 7-year-old son spotted the big tent and walked up to the registration table. Told that the breakfast helped homeless kids, the mother dug out several wadded-up dollar bills from her backpack. Although the event had just ended, Michelle Talarico and the Picnic Basket crew, in the midst of cleaning up, quietly seated the family and brought plates of hot food, fruit and glasses of orange juice. Only the caterer and a few other people nearby knew that, like the Urban Peak youth, the mother and son were homeless.
The fact that homelessness can happen to anyone was a theme that morning, and a difficult story was shared publicly for the first time by local developer and philanthropist Chuck Murphy.
He and his wife Mary Lou have a large and very close Catholic family that now includes nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Pausing to look out at the crowd, Murphy revealed that two of their grandsons are meth addicts. Both had resorted to stealing to fund their habits and both had been homeless.
One Murphy grandson is in the penitentiary for eight years. Another had gone to prison, violated probation and went back. Both had tried to stay clean but couldn't. One of those grandsons tripped out, climbed to the roof of the Springs Rescue Mission and fell off, landing on his head. At age 30 and after three months in ICU, he is paralyzed, can't speak and his hands are gnarled.
"It can happen to anybody," Murphy said sadly. "It can happen to your grandkids."
He shared the family's story because, "In my son Kevin's words, 'we're only as sick as our secrets.'"
Money raised that morning helps the Urban Peak programs, including an emergency shelter that has 20 beds for youth between the ages of 15 and 20. They are helped with basic needs and, through case management, learn life skills, go back to school, get jobs and can graduate to their own apartments.
In the plans are a youth-focus day center downtown, an on-the-streets counselor and expanding the housing options from 15 apartments to 50.
Kemppainen's own son had lost his way, she said, but has since found his own path and reestablished a relationship with his mother. "We now live three miles apart," she said.
The homeless kids were "our neighbors when they had an address. They're still our neighbors," Kemppainen said. "These kids belong in and to our community."
Like others, she had asked, why didn't someone do something?
Facing her guests, Kemppainen announced emphatically, "I am someone ..."