Joni Hoffer and Karen Kopan - Volunteers of the Year
Joni Hoffer and Karen Kopan had no idea that after their customary trip to Unity in Chicago on Sunday morning in spring of 2010, their lives would be forever changed. After service, the congregation gathered in the Sunshine Room where many community organizations had informational booths set up - Karen stopped by UCAN's LGBTQ Host Home Program booth and was immediately interested. The program, which is an innovative housing model providing an alternative to the shelter system for LGBTQ homeless youth, trains Host Home volunteers who invite homeless LGBTQ youth aged 18 to 24 into their homes for one to two years. After telling Bonnie she'd "be right back," Karen spoke with Joni about the opportunity - and the rest, as they say, is history.
Joni and Karen are two very generous people and upon learning about the vast number of homeless LGBTQ youth in Illinois the pair says that they, "really couldn't think of a reason why we wouldn't help give a homeless youth a home, especially when we have an extra bedroom!" Making the decision to officially participate in the program evoked emotions of both fear and excitement, explains Joni: "Karen feared she would smother the youth! I was somewhat concerned about letting a stranger into our home, but was excited to be able to give this young woman her own space. I knew it was the right thing to do."
Upon moving in, the new housemates decided on house rules and courtesies. They all had a great amount of respect for one another, and harmony grew in the household. When something was not working, they sat down and discussed a new plan. At first the young woman was very cautious, and took a while to trust that the couple's home was not going to be taken away. Joni and Karen made sure their words and actions always matched to create comfort and build trust. Karen said, "UCAN's training was great; it allowed us to begin to understand what these homeless youth were going through and what we could expect. It taught us how to communicate, and we really benefitted from [the training]."
The young lady took some time to adjust to living in a new place, but with a newfound stability, she was quickly able to find a part-time job and to focus on school. As time passed their relationship grew, but Joni and Karen were also adamant about letting their housemate maintain her independence. She was included in family holiday trips home to Joni's Indiana farm, and even mourned with Joni and Karen after one of their close friends passed away. In turn, Joni and Karen went to the youth's poetry slam where Karen read a poem out loud!
The young woman lived with Joni and Karen for about a year. Karen says, "This was an absolutely amazing opportunity." Joni adds, "It was very humbling to see someone dream, and then be able to make their dreams a reality. That's what being a host volunteer is all about."
"It is only through the kindness and generosity of host volunteers like Joni & Karen, that we are able to offer safe housing to LGBT youth as they build healthy and self-sufficient lives. They brought the right balance of offering support and grace as the young person worked to get to the next level. Joni and Karen are nothing short of phenomenal." - Bonnie Wade, LGBTQ Host Home Program Director
Thank you for your exceptional commitment to our youth and the LGBTQ Host Home Program!