Jean Kelly learned the simplicity of unconditional love from her parents

Jean Kelly

Jean Kelly

Age: 63

Title: Executive Director of The INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network)

Lives in: Huntington, New York

Sr. Camille: Jean, often when I interview people they cite teachers whom they admire and who have inspired them. During a recent conversation with some of your teachers at Our Lady of Mercy Academy I found the tables turned: they spoke admiringly of you as they described the modeling you provide as a generous young woman who volunteers at The INN [Interfaith Nutrition Network], a soup kitchen in Wyandanch, Long Island, created by the Sisters of Mercy a quarter century ago and now in the care of others. What is it the service you provide there and how often do you help there?

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Kelly: I am the Executive Director of The INN which is a human service agency which operates 14 soup kitchens, three emergency shelters and 20 long-term housing apartments with supportive services for homeless individuals and families. The INN was asked to take over the management of the Soup Kitchen in Wyandanch in 2003 when the Sisters of Mercy decided they could not continue its operation when the individual who ran it, decided to retire. The INN is a volunteer-based organization and this soup kitchen (which is the longest running soup kitchen on Long Island, thanks to the Sisters of Mercy opening it in 1980) is run completely by volunteers from all faiths who live in the local community and surrounding towns.

What led you to this work of mercy?

Natural progression. … I witnessed my parents welcoming everyone in the neighborhood into our home and saw how simple an effort it was to love unconditionally … since I experienced that from my parents each day. 

Please say something about the volunteers you work with.

They are the most selfless, dedicated, caring and devoted individuals you would ever have the privilege to meet. 

What have you learned from those who come for food?

They are simply us, in different clothing. 

Who supplies the meals?

Much of the food is donated. Everything needed to complete the meal is purchased with funds that are donated to the Mercy INN. All of the volunteers raise the money needed from their friends and family in the local community.

Do any of your relatives or friends support what you do?

Yes, all of my family and friends support my efforts. 

Where and with whom did you grow up?

I grew up in Glen Cove, New York. I am one of eight children and was raised by my parents, Mary and John Kelly who treated us all to twelve years of Catholic education which enhanced the values we were taught at home. 

Do you have role models?

Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Tell us about them and what in their behavior appeals to you?

They both lived very contemporary and challenging lives as young people and then found their connection to God which allowed them to pursue their true calling to be of service, both to those in need and to those seeking spiritual enlightenment. 

You live in a high tech world. Does this help or hinder your efforts to follow the examples Jesus gave, as recorded in the New Testament?

I believe it hinders our efforts to communicate with each other because it eliminates the need for personal interaction. It also shortens communication channels which cause potential misunderstandings. Finally it also seems to expose people to an invasion of privacy and has great potential for anonymous bullying which causes pain and despair. However a positive effect is the opportunity to share information quickly with many people at once and hopefully allow people to feel more aware and connected with people in other parts of the world. Thanks to crowdfunding many people can become aware, contribute and help people in need all over the world in the blink of an eye. The major challenge with all this information sharing seems to be a heightened sense of overload and potentially feeling overwhelmed by the many conflicts and immediate visual access to those suffering throughout the world.

Are you satisfied with the roles women are allowed to embrace in society?

No.

Would you change any of them and, if so, how?

I would encourage more women to hold political offices and become leaders of corporations where they could influence the quality of life in their communities, this country and ultimately impact the world's potential for future generations, both economically and environmentally.

When you pray, do you hold a specific image of God?

Yes. The Trinity. 

How do people in your age group show compassion and concern for those who are poor or who live on the margins of society?

I believe many are now retiring and offering their services in volunteer capacities in soup kitchens and food pantries, if their schedules permit. For those who are unable to volunteer I believe they are sharing their values and compassion for others with family members and friends they can influence and inspire.

Please describe your professional goals.

I hope to learn more each day about whatever the best practices are in terms of serving those in need with the utmost of dignity and respect.

What do you envision yourself doing ten years from now?

Helping people find their spiritual nourishment.

Did you ever consider becoming a sister?

No. But I am mistaken for a sister every day.

How do you relax?

In silence.

Do you have a favorite TV program? "Leave it to Beaver"

 …author? Thomas Merton 

…movie? "The Wizard of Oz" 

…sport? Tennis 

…vacation place? Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, N.Y.

What else would you like us to know?

I wish there was a way to make the adults, who were taught by the Sisters of Mercy and other religious communities, who are now living successfully, thanks to their education by the Sisters, to become aware of the financial reality facing most all of the communities as they need to care for their elderly community members. There is great ignorance on the part of many well educated individuals. I keep this in my thoughts and prayers every day and thank God for the gift of knowing all the sisters who taught me over the years, both Sisters of Mercy and School Sisters of Notre Dame.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

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