Sam Silverstein is a former writer-producer for the National Association of REALTORS® based in Washington, D.C.
A Hunger to Help the Community
Spurred by the death of a homeless man, 2017 Good Neighbor Award Winner Kay Wilson-Bolton created a program that feeds hundreds.
August 30, 2017
REALTOR® Kay Wilson-Bolton built a thriving real estate business over four decades helping people buy and sell houses. But it was a chance encounter with someone who couldn’t afford a place to live that moved her to have the most notable impact on her Santa Paula, Calif., community.
After a homeless man was found dead in a local church on Christmas Eve in 2008, Wilson-Bolton, ABR, CRS, a sales associate with Century 21 Troop Real Estate and chaplain for the Ventura County Fire Department, was called to the scene—and decided on the spot to take action. She met with local officials and a pastor to see how she could help. Initially, she wanted to open a homeless shelter, but after realizing that would be too complex, she instead devised a plan to feed Santa Paula’s homeless residents. On Jan. 14, 2009, Wilson-Bolton held her first event at a local church, drawing 57 people in need of a hot meal.
It quickly became a regular program that, within two years, was serving 200 people per week. The effort, known as Many Meals, now provides food to as many as 600 people every Wednesday at Santa Paula’s First Presbyterian Church. “We had no idea what ‘many’ would mean when we started,” says Wilson-Bolton, whose efforts to end hunger are part of a nonprofit organization she established in 2002 called SPIRIT of Santa Paula. The town’s former mayor and council member, Wilson-Bolton runs the organization as a volunteer.
Saving Tons of Food From the Trash
Beyond the hundreds of meals the SPIRIT of Santa Paula provides at the church each week, Wilson-Bolton and a team of volunteers and staff collect about 30,000 pounds per month of excess food from restaurants, caterers, and supermarkets. They store the food in a fleet of refrigerators and distribute it to people through a program called Food Bank.
Wilson-Bolton also offers free meals, clothes, and counseling every morning to anyone who comes to a reception center in her real estate office, an arrangement that allows her to take care of her real estate clients at the same time that she attends to her community service.
“It would make you sick if you knew how much food is thrown away every day in this country.” —Kay Wilson-Bolton
Wilson-Bolton keeps her real estate and food pantry operations entirely separate despite their physical closeness, with her real estate clients often unaware of the other work she does just steps away. But that doesn’t mean reconciling her two very different pursuits is easy. “There is emotional baggage, particularly when I’m showing properties in multimillion-dollar areas,” she says. “I can’t think bad things about people who have earned those things, and I hope they have the charity to give back.”
Wilson-Bolton derives her resolve from a personal tragedy: Her daughter, Kathy, died of a drug overdose in 2006, a profound loss that she says gives her the strength to speak frankly to people whose actions are harmful to themselves and others. “I feel I have the right to address their addictions and what they are doing to their families,” she says. “If we hadn’t lost Kathy, I might not have had the opportunity to do that.”
In addition to providing food for hundreds of people a week, Wilson-Bolton helps people throughout the city of Santa Paula with everyday tasks, such as picking up prescriptions, getting to medical appointments, and fixing flat tires. She’s often called upon when someone faces a crisis and never hesitates to help, no matter the time of day—despite opposition from critics who say her efforts attract unwanted people to the city.
“Kay is a constant voice for people on the margins,” says Ron Urzua, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. “She is the conscience for people who normally would sweep that stuff under the rug.”
Offering Respect as Well as Help
Christine Pulido turned to the SPIRIT of Santa Paula for help when she lost her house to foreclosure in 2012 following a divorce and a long stretch of unemployment while recovering from a shattered ankle. She was homeless for four years. Pulido says she appreciates Wilson-Bolton because she gets to know people individually and treats their problems as if they were hers. “There are so many things she does that you’d think she’d delegate,” she says. “You can always do better if somebody shows you a little love.”
Pulido, who now works part-time for the SPIRIT of Santa Paula, says Wilson-Bolton helped her develop a positive outlook despite her challenges. “I had a big, four-bedroom home in a nice quarter of the city before, and now I am in a not-very-nice studio. But I have electricity and running water, and I can take a shower anytime I want to,” she says. “I’m not doing well, but I’m doing.”
Another success story is Veronica Sandez, who had been homeless for 11 months dealing with substance addictions. She says Wilson-Bolton did a lot more than just help her get through a tough time. That support included a part-time job at the SPIRIT of Santa Paula, which Sandez was able to parlay into a full-time position with another employer.
Wilson-Bolton was eventually able to realize her goal of establishing a homeless shelter, which was named “Richard’s House” in memory of Richard Rios Soto, the homeless man whose death sparked her charitable campaign. The shelter, opened in 2010, was housed in a foreclosed home, which the bank offered to SPIRIT of Santa Paula at no cost on the condition that the organization take care of the extensive environmental remediation work it needed.
With the help of a local business contact who agreed to do the work and provide the funds to pay for it, Wilson-Bolton was able to bring the house up to code. But despite being able to serve more than 80 residents over three years, Wilson-Bolton regretfully closed the shelter in 2012 after realizing that she lacked the resources to provide all the services the residents needed.
Even as her charitable efforts have gained steam, Wilson-Bolton has remained a top-producing agent for Century 21, which bought her five-office real estate business in 2012. She credits the reputation and connections she has built during more than 40 years in real estate for her ability to balance her profession with her volunteer work.
Wilson-Bolton says she has no plans to take a vacation and remains as dedicated as ever to her mission of helping her neighbors overcome obstacles. “This is my world,” she says. “I never think about passing the torch. God will tell me when it’s time.”
Contact Wilson-Bolton at email@example.com and contact the SPIRIT of Santa Paula at spiritofsantapaula.org.