In memory of a giant

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When I see Nellie McClung’s face (surrounded by men) on the new $10 bill or I pass the Jenny Trout or Emily Murphy centres in Stratford I wonder what it would have been like to know these giants.

These pioneers moved us all forward—some of us kicking and screaming. These are women who bravely persevered in the face of opposition and obstacles. They did what needed to be done. Their accomplishments are not just history to be summed up in a Heritage Minute.

These women, the gutsy ones, still roll up their sleeves and propel us all forward. They inspire us to do better.

Florence Kehl was one of those women. Her legacy may not be turned into a one-minute Canadian history lesson but when I drive by House of Blessing I will remember her and think, “I knew that giant.”

Flo died unexpectedly on January 3. She was 76.

More than 30 years ago Flo went to Hamilton to see what was being done for people facing poverty in that city. She got home and told her husband Norman she wanted to start a community-based organization that would provide food and clothing to people who needed it in Stratford. He told her to go for it. They put up their savings to build House of Blessing.

What she started has become the city’s social conscience.

“You have no idea what people are going through when they walk through the doors,” she said when I interviewed her for The Beacon Herald in 2013. “Even when they’re miserable and difficult to deal with, you don’t know what they’re going through so you try to treat them with respect.”

That was her mantra and because of that, House of Blessing has been a place of refuge and respect for people who need it most.

Flo retired from House of Blessing in 2010 but it will always be associated with its founder. In years to come residents who fall on hard times will be able to count on House of Blessing to send them home with food, a prom dress, an outfit to got to an interview, and some kindness in a world unforgiving of “failure.”

At every meeting I had with her, first professionally and later personally, I was touched by her infinite kindness, her easy laugh, and her confidence in me.

When I think of Flo, I think of the custodian who worked at House of Blessing more than a decade ago. On the surface this anecdote doesn’t sound like it’s about Flo but really it is. Just a couple of years into my journalism career in Stratford I was offered the chance to explore what it meant to be homeless in the city. Me and a small group of other community members were each given an identity and were told to see if we could get shelter.

I was supposed to be a young mom with two kids who was suddenly out on the street and out in the cold. We were given $5 and that was it. I asked people working in local businesses what I should do and every time they told me to call House of Blessing.

That was significant. It spoke to the reputation of House of Blessing and to the high profile it enjoyed because of the work done there and because of Flo. I walked around for hours and I didn’t call because I knew House of Blessing doesn’t have beds.

I also refused to call any other agency that wasn’t recommended to me. I knew what services were available because of my job but I figured if I was a young mom who suddenly found herself on the street, I might not know where to get help.

I did call a few other organizations which were eventually suggested to me but they were closed or, in the case of one of them, I didn’t fit the criteria.

It was amazing to me how quickly my confidence eroded and how lonely I felt. And cold. I knew it was all pretend but I was not prepared for the shame and how quickly it began to feel real.

I finally called House of Blessing because it had been recommended so many times. It was late and it was closed but the custodian answered the phone anyway.

He was genuinely concerned for me and talked to me for about 15 or 20 minutes. He suggested some phone numbers to try but if nothing materialized he urged me to call back.

I called back a few minutes later and he was beside himself. The idea that a young mother with two kids would be out in the cold at night with nowhere to go was unthinkable to him.  I may not remember correctly but I think he had called his wife. I know he was prepared to arrange for me to get to his home until I could talk to social services.

My heart sank. He was so invested in my wellbeing. Now I had to come clean—I wasn’t homeless, I wasn’t a young mom, I was a reporter. I felt awful but he was very forgiving, though a little confused.

I don’t want to take anything away from the custodian who is clearly a wonderful human being, but I think that the sense of responsibility toward others and the desire to help comes from the culture Flo built at House of Blessing.

Because it was built on Flo and Norm’s money it was also built on their ideals and their ideals had no restrictions.

The kindness I received from the custodian is Flo’s legacy. Flo did her best for everyone and it was contagious.

Five minutes in Flo’s presence and I wanted to be a better person and I know I’m not alone. Every conversation started with a warm embrace and ended with the same.

She was a devoted Christian and her faith was a part of each endeavor she took on. She modeled the answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” For Flo the answer was undoubtedly yes, and your sister’s keeper, and your neighbours’ keeper, and any stranger who crossed your path.

In those of us who knew her she ignited compassion. The object now, is to keep that flame lit.

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  1. Richard and Ruth Kneider

    Thank you Laura for sharing what an AMAZING woman Florence was,her legacy will certainly live on!

  2. Michael Bannerman

    Thanks Laura… Sums Flo up so well. She was a beautiful woman with a huge heart! She definitely will be missed.

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