Providing Keys for the Homeless

Valerie JohnsonNothing is more practical than finding God, that is, falling in love, in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, what you know, what breaks your heart and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.” – Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

Valerie Guste Johnson ’76 lives by these words every day. The former superior general of the Society of Jesus, Arrupe defined the modern mission of the Jesuits in terms of “faith that does justice.” His compassion and commitment to justice keep her centered as the founder of KEYS for the Homeless Foundation in Washington, D.C.

KEYS grew out of Johnson’s recognition of the influence the hospitality industry has in supporting homeless services in the nation’s capital. It started in 1998 with a youth service initiative in her parish, Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, to assemble personal care items for the homeless. She reached out to the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. to support the project.

Over the years, the work has evolved into a foundation that in 2010 procured more than $200,000 of in-kind donations for those living in poverty in the greater D.C. area. Everyday household items such as linens, home furnishings, kitchenware and small appliances from many from high-end hotels and vendors are helping families transition from homelessness and poverty to self-sufficiency.

Johnson gratefully embraces Spring Hill’s Jesuit influence on her in this mission. “The enduring words of Father Arrupe encompass past, present and future years of KEYS for the Homeless Foundation. My years at Spring Hill opened my heart to ‘falling in love’ in unexpected ways, and the memories are integral in forming my convictions in trusting the love of God,” she said. “At Spring Hill, I knew my relationships in company with the Jesuits would enlighten my hopes and desires. I distinctly remember the pure, drawing nature of charism through the Jesuit presence that permeated the essence of my education and believed it would strengthen me with a boundless, liberating love.”

Many Jesuits have touched her life – some through books, some with prayers and retreats, others with their presence at family dinners. Two Spring Hill Jesuits, Rev. Jim Lambert, S.J., and the late Rev. Paul S. Tipton, S.J., served as godparents to two of her six children, now ages 22 to 32. She and her husband, Rob Johnson ’72, have shared 36 years of married life finding the Jesuit way. “I thank God for our friendships and for those yet to be, as they are truly lasting gifts for my entire family,” she said.

Her work with the homeless continued to grow, and in 2005 KEYS was established as a nonprofit foundation. As an allied member of the Hotel Association of Washington, DC., she networks with leaders in the hospitality industry; and as a member of Good360, she partners with nine retail stores to further the foundation’s mission. As a member of the United Way of the National Capitol Area, she has the recognition with both charities and businesses.

Johnson navigates an office on the road, traveling miles in her Subaru station wagon, connecting existing resources to a wide network of care providers and advocating for homeless services. In June, the foundation launched a new feature on its Web site to better streamline and track donations.

Reflecting on her work, Johnson recalls experiences in her early life growing up in New Orleans, and the happy time of Thanksgiving at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, the Rosary, when each family prepared gift-wrapped boxes of food to be shared with those in need.

And, unbeknownst to her as a child, her grandfather helped develop the first urban housing project in New Orleans. Her father served on the founding board of directors for Unity of Greater New Orleans; and her mother strived to improve the services provided at Ozanam Inn, a nonprofit shelter and kitchen for the homeless in New Orleans.

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