“Betty Chinn is a woman who exemplifies how one person can touch the lives of hundreds of people whom the rest of the world has forgotten. Her purpose is simple: to show the homeless who live in her hometown of Eureka love, comfort and basic humanity.
Every morning before dawn, she loads up her catering truck with an urn of hot coffee, piles on the doughnuts and heads out to make her deliveries. Hers is a special clientele: the homeless, the disenfranchised, the forgotten. They are often mentally ill, substance abusers, teenage runaways or veterans. They do not seek out shelters or come in from the cold; they prefer to hide. They live under the railroad, under bridges or in the bushes. At the moment they range in age from age 3 to age 82, but she’s seen them younger and older. Betty is one of the few people in their fearful world they have come to trust. No judgment, no lecture; just a cup of coffee and a taste of humanity to help them get through the day.
As she feeds them breakfast, Betty talks to them, and finds out what their particular need may be for the day. If they have to call a parent to let them know they are alive, she arranges a phone card. If they need to wash clothes, she gets them a voucher for the local laundromat. If they need clothes or a blanket or a tent, she’ll find someone to donate the items. If they are veterans, she tries to arrange for them to get benefits. If they want a shower, she’ll drive them to the apartment of friends who will let them shower. And if the weather is particularly extreme, she will ask friends to donate a motel room to get a mother and her children out of the storm.
And after she does all that, she goes back home, where she turns her kitchen into a staging area for the real work of the day: feeding dinner to roughly 200 people on the streets. Her husband, a retired physics professor, loads the containers into the catering truck, and off she goes, taking hot food and a whole lot of love to those who would otherwise go without nourishment for either body or soul. This is what Betty has done from the day she got her first paycheck in America working at her children’s school. This is what she has done almost every day, twice a day, for over twenty years.”
– from http://www.womensconference.org/betty-chinn/, 2008
At the core of Betty Chinn’s mission to care for the homeless are her stops at the city-owned parking lot near the Humboldt County Health & Human Services’ Social Services Office. There, twice a day, seven days a week and nearly 365 days a year, Betty serves a meal and a hot cup of coffee to hundreds of people. Some are homeless. Some aren’t. But, like so many, at the end of the month, they find their pockets empty and their cupboards bare. Betty’s mission also extends far beyond food as she gives out shoes, clothes, blankets, hygiene products, phone cards and generally whatever is needed.
When it gets frosty cold at night, she makes extra trips, driving down to where she knows people are sleeping outside to let them sit in her car while she blasts the heater. When it’s raining, she makes extra rounds to give out ponchos and dry socks. For some school children, every day begins with a ride from Betty, first to shower and then to school. She can do all this because she anticipates people’s needs, knows them and has won their trust through her relentless consistency and genuine kindness.
Betty is able to do so much because she is backed by a growing community of people. What started as one woman’s paycheck has grown like a vine to include people from all sections of society who donate what they can: a box of wool socks here, and a bag of lightly used clothes there. A handful of local businesses also make regular donations, some weekly, some daily, others whenever Betty needs a bus ticket, a hotel room or something else for one of her people. As Betty likes to say, she is the ‘middle man,’ simply helping people realize the joy of giving and making sure everyone gets what they need. At a time of increasing need, a community is also coming together to sustain Betty’s growing endeavor. Community members now spend two mornings a week cooking with Betty, while others volunteer their time sorting clothes, picking up donations, organizing events and more. With Betty’s example, the group’s hope is that this will soon be a community mission.
In recent years, Betty has spoken about how she would like to build “Betty’s House” — a type of central location — where she could help clients keep warm and fed, while at the same time connecting them with a variety of services housed under one roof. Her vision included health care providers, social workers and career counselors all working together at a single point of engagement so that, whenever one of her clients decides it’s time to reach out for help, they have the tools on hand to better their lives. The location’s storage space, commercial kitchen and donation drop-off area would also maximize Betty’s time, allowing her to spend it where she is most effective: Engaging people on a one-to-one basis, listening to them and nurturing them.
We are happy to report that his dream has come to fruition in the Betty Kwan Chinn Day Center, thanks to a partnership with the Catholic Charities Diocese of Santa Rosa and countless local supporters.
With an outpouring of support from all strata of the community, Betty Chinn teamed up with St. Vincent de Paul’s Free Dining Facility in Eureka to raise more than $125,000 for a public shower and laundry facility. Under the mantra “Providing Dignity One Shower at a Time,” the project was made possible through a diverse group of volunteers and donors, many of whom had never before donated to a cause of that sort. The project also introduced Betty’s work to a wider community, which has been deeply impacted by her story as well as her mission, and is beginning to follow her empathetic example.
Providing the seed money for the effort was a $25,000 grant that Chinn received as a part of the 2008 Minerva Award bestowed upon her by California First Lady Maria Shriver. The award set off a string of honors for Chinn, including being named the California 1st Assembly District 2010 Woman of the Year and the Grand Marshal for the 2010 Rhododendron Parade.
But Chinn will say her greatest accomplishments are those that generally go unnoticed by most: The hundreds of people she helped off the streets last year, the runaway teenagers she helped home, the homeless she has helped reconnect with their support communities and the stranded souls she has helped get back on their way. The awards and accolades, Betty says, only help bring attention to the needs of those she serves.
Ways to help
Due to a general lack of storage space, Betty’s needs at this point are primarily two things: Monetary support and people willing to offer their time and services.
Click HERE for a list of specific and ongoing needs — things like gas vouchers, bus tickets, sleeping bags and winter clothing.
“Betty has never forgotten the experience of being homeless. She feels called to return the kindness and good fortune she received in this country. … Betty is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met.”
– California 1st District Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro
“I believe that Betty is an inspiration to the community. I believe that she is probably as perfect an example of altruism as you can find. I don’t think she has any agenda other than trying to help people out. … It kind of rekindles my faith in the goodness of people and I’m proud to be associated with her.”
– Eureka Police Chief Garr Nielsen
“What I love about this next honoree is that while her operation is very small and simple, its impact is powerful and profound. In fact, she is a reminder to each and every one of us about what one person, with a big heart and deep dedication, can achieve. Take a look at Betty Chinn.”
– California First Lady Maria Shriver
“She’s our Godsend,”
– “Downtown” Larry Brown, one of the people Chinn serves
“I think the thing that strikes me most is she’s not an evangelist. She doesn’t have to preach at them. She just emanates the love of Christ.”
– Dan Price, pastor at Eureka’s First Presbyterian Church