Sunday Profile: ‘Ms. Karen’ peppers homeless with love, support
It doesn’t take long during a visit to the Feed My Sheep day center for the homeless in downtown Glenwood Springs to feel the sense of respect shown for longtime director Karen Peppers by those she was called to serve.
“Just the way she picks people up and engages them, it’s always ‘Ms. Karen’ this or ‘Ms. Karen’ that,” observed Michael Pollock.
Pollock is one of the local homeless men who landed on the doorstep of “The Sheep,” as those who frequent the center refer to it. Pollock this past summer fell on hard times in Denver and returned to his hometown of Glenwood, where he used to help his parents run a hardware store.
“Yeah, some of these guys look kind of ruffian, and some of them have done prison time,” he said. “But, you know, it’s a necessity to have a place like Feed My Sheep in this modern age.”
Not only the place, but the personal touch Peppers and her many volunteers provide to make people who don’t have a regular roof over their heads to feel at home.
“I’ve seen her be utterly tireless in offering abundant good wishes for everybody, along with a shared sense of concern,” Pollock said.
Peppers learned from one of the best, after all.
She began volunteering with Feed My Sheep soon after the late Karolyn Spencer founded the organization during the winter of 2003-04 to serve the growing contingent of homeless people in the community by providing warm clothes, camping supplies, food, a place to clean up and, eventually, a place to stay overnight during the winter for those who really needed it.
At the time, Karen and Mike Peppers had been in Glenwood Springs for several years operating a construction business together.
One day at church she learned about the Extended Table soup kitchen operated by the poverty relief organization LIFT-UP. Each week night, volunteers from different churches and other organizations serve up a hot meal to the homeless and destitute, or anyone who wants to come, in the downstairs fellowship hall at the First United Methodist Church in Glenwood.
“It was a God thing, that’s for sure,” Peppers said of her first volunteer experience at the Extended Table.
When she heard about Spencer’s efforts to serve the homeless in other, more substantive ways, Peppers was on board.
“She just loved the work, and put a lot into it,” Peppers said of Spencer, who was in her 70s when she started the organization. “I was always impressed with her drive, and nothing could bring her down.”
Peppers said she had always struggled to communicate with people who found themselves in bad circumstances.
“Karolyn taught me how to let those walls down and to speak what I really wanted to express to people,” she said.
alleghenies to rockies
Peppers was born in the Allegheny Mountain region of western New York. Her mother was a private investigator, so the family, including Karen and one brother, traveled from place to place.
“I saw a lot of country growing up,” she said, adding that they eventually wound up in Tennessee where she spent her formative years.
“Life was pretty simple and easy … a lot of church activities,” Peppers said.
After high school, though, “I wanted to do my own thing,” she said.
That ultimately landed she and her husband of nearly 37 years, Mike, in Glenwood Springs, where they worked “side by side” in the construction business building homes up and down the Roaring Fork Valley.
Peppers said she always sensed that Spencer was preparing her to take over Feed My Sheep one day. But she was called away from Glenwood about seven years ago when Mike was diagnosed with lung cancer, and they moved to Arkansas for his treatments.
Soon after that, in February of 2009, they received word that Spencer had passed away after her own battle with pancreatic cancer.
Another Feed My Sheep volunteer at the time, Kenneth Williams, served as director for about a year before he resigned. That’s when Peppers got a call from a board member.
“They basically told me, you’re going to take over Feed My Sheep. No conversation, the decision had been made,” Peppers recalled.
“We talked about it and decided we had to come back, that this is where God wanted us to be,” she said.
Since then, Peppers, with regular help from her husband and a core group of about 36 year-round volunteers, live and breath Feed My Sheep’s mission:
“To provide the basic necessities for the survival of the local homeless in the Roaring Fork Valley and surrounding counties. We offer love, compassion, encouragement and hope for their futures. Our mission is to aid the homeless in reaching self sufficiency through case management and substance abuse programs.”
Peppers notes that Spencer combined her love for the people she served with a sternness about making sure they followed the rules, stayed away from alcohol and other drugs and didn’t cause problems for the local residents, business owners and tourists in the community.
“You have to be stern at times, sure,” Peppers said in reference to growing concerns about some of the more transient, vagrant types who are prone to cause problems and who aren’t necessarily the ones using Feed My Sheep’s services.
“We try to be one big, happy family here,” she said.
NO PLACE LIKE ‘HOME’
The current day center opened in the downstairs portion of the Catholic Charities building at 10th and Grand in downtown Glenwood 10 years ago.
It’s where the local homeless population — a mix of longtime locals who are down on their luck, families, veterans who are struggling, and drifters who happen in and out of town — can get a hot breakfast, lunch, showers, do laundry, store some of their things and make phone calls or use a computer to stay in touch with family or line up work.
The center provides supplies for those who choose to sleep on the hillsides above town, such as tents, sleeping bags, blankets, flashlights and personal care items.
“The center is not just a place for these services, it’s a place where men and women can share, plan for the future, renew family relationships, search for work, receive respect and acceptance,” according to the narrative on the organization’s website.
Staff can also help people find temporary or long-term housing, restore lost identification, and provide referrals for mental and medical care.
The open setting includes a living and dining area, kitchen, a laundry room, restrooms and shower facilities, reading and study areas.
Hours are from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Clients can stay for the day, but are encouraged to do something to better their situation for most of the time.
“The TV doesn’t go on until noon,” Peppers said. “Then, they can watch a show or a movie if they want.”
The day center logged 9,217 visits last year, serving a total of 237 people, she said.
After hypothermia claimed the life of a local homeless woman in December of 2005, Feed My Sheep responded by starting an overnight shelter during the winter months. The shelter began with two motel rooms in 2006, and now uses the basement at the Church of Christ in West Glenwood, operating from late November through March.
Separate areas are provided for men and women, couples and families with children. An average of 28 to 30 people use the shelter each night, including families in a crisis situation such as a sudden eviction, job loss, fire, or even those who are stranded and can’t afford a motel room.
a friendly smile
Recently, Peppers said she was driving “one of the guys” to a job, when he turned to her and asked, “Why are you always so happy?”
“Because my mom always said to,” she replied.
“I learned early on that when you open your eyes in the morning you have a choice,” she said. “You can either be ugly and mean, or you can smile and be happy. I always chose the latter.”
It’s a way of approaching life that rubs off on the people she touches.
Like Pollock, who can often be seen patrolling downtown Glenwood Springs picking up cigarette butts and trash, and even offering to sweep the front sidewalk for local businesses.
“It feels really good to do that,” Pollock said. “Giving back to he community, even in that little way, is something that has really resonated with me.”
And like Mark Elliott, who said he met Peppers when he had regular carpentry work, before he himself found the need to utilize The Sheep’s services when he suffered spinal damage and wasn’t able to work, and also came to terms with a drinking problem.
“She’s just a real asset to the community, and I’ve always had great respect for her,” Elliott said. “I’ve seen Karen reach out to people in really tough situations and go above and beyond to help them.”
Elliott acknowledged an “outside perception” that isn’t all that positive about Feed My Sheep and the homeless population of Glenwood Springs and the valley.
“The guys out causing trouble, they don’t come down here, and we really don’t want them to tarnish our image,” Elliott said in reference to the problems some within the larger homeless population have caused.
“This is actually a pretty typical day here,” he said, scanning the room where day center clients were quietly going about their routines.
It’s where Kelley Cullen of New Castle decided about a year ago to start doing weekly volunteer work with her two young children, Ashley, 6, and Brodie, 3.
“I was looking for something to do with the kids that would teach them about giving back,” Cullen said. “They’re really quiet, so this gives them the conversation and companionship piece, and just a different social experience from a play date.
“It’s a place to communicate with all kinds of people in a safe environment, and helps them open their minds to what’s around us and what different people’s situations are,” she said.
Cullen acknowledged that some people might be too afraid or uncomfortable going into an environment like that, especially exposing their children to it.
“Sure, it can be awkward,” she said. “But I think it’s good to let yourself experience that discomfort.”
Besides, Ashley and Brodie love playing with and helping to take care of the Sheep’s pet rabbit, Angel.
And, “Karen is amazing, just her devotion and her passion for working with the people who come here,” Cullen said.
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Officer Haley Walker sat beside her stepmother in a windowless interrogation room just before starting the overnight shift on Thursday evening.