Editor’s Note: The Friends Association for the Care and Protection of Children, based in West Chester, helps homeless or near-homeless families stabilize their lives and find or maintain permanent housing. The nonprofit, which prevented homelessness for 122 families and 270 children in Chester County last year, just promoted Karen Wise to Director of Programs. Naveena Vijayn, a volunteer with Friends Association, recently sat down with Wise to learn about the path that brought her to Friends Association and to understand her role a little better.
Karen Wise shoulders a lot of responsibilities.
At Friends Association for the Care and Protection of Children, she was recently promoted to Director of Programs, where she supervises three staff members and the programs they manage. At home, she is a mother to five children, one of whom, a 14-month-old boy, often sleeps right next to her chair, impervious to the chaos in the office.
Wise joined Friends in April 2015, as an outreach case manager.
“I am actually in transition,” she said. “I also oversee the Homeless Prevention Program. And in the interim, while we find another Emergency Shelter Manager, I am also managing the shelter.”
What this means is that she is responsible for the six families in the shelter and the building itself.
“So, when the fire alarm goes off,” she said, “and the alarm companies call me, it could be 2 AM.”
Though her working hours on paper are from 8:30 AM-4:30 PM, there are days when she has to take a call as late as 8 PM and as early at 6 AM. She doesn’t seem to mind it. In fact, she goes the extra mile to interact with the families every day. She wants them to know that she is “on this journey with them, together. Side by side, not as a dictator.”
“I put myself in their shoes,” Wise said. “If it was me and my family who were in their position, how would I want to be treated?”
On one hand, she stands as a pillar of confidence for the clients; on the other, she serves as a bridge between them and the landlords.
“At the end of the day, our job is to get our clients housed,” she said. “I have to build a rapport and an ongoing relationship with landlords. We deal with clients, some of whom have criminal backgrounds, have been evicted before, or have minimal income. It is important that we advocate for them. Once they get a house, the next step is to make sure that they remain there, and not get evicted.”
“So if their kid is unwell, and they can’t go to work, they don’t get paid and can’t pay the rent,” said Wise. “So, we are just there as a safety net.”
There are around 30 families under the Housing Stability Case Management Program, which is collaboratively administered through a partnership among Friends Association, Open Hearth Inc., and Kennett Area Community Services. Fourteen of the families are under the care of Friends Association.
Wise knows what it’s like to be homeless.
“Growing up, we were impoverished,” she said. “When I was 14, my mom allowed her boyfriend to kick me out of the house. I had nowhere to go. I stopped going to school and went from an honor student with perfect attendance to not showing up at all. I ended up going to Juvenile Court, for not going to school. It was there that I said to the judge, I have no place to live.”
She was admitted to the Montgomery County Youth Shelter in Audubon.
“I was in foster care – independent living,” Wise said. “When I turned 18, two weeks before I graduated high school, I had $7,000 in savings. So, I got my own apartment the very next day, and I have been on my own since then.”
She had her first daughter when she was 19. A single mom, she was on welfare, for food stamps and medical aid for her daughter.
“I worked full time during the day as a secretary,” she said. “I was going to school three days a week in the night. Instead of a 16-week semester, everything was crammed into eight weeks.”
In 18 months, Wise earned her bachelor’s degree from Chestnut Hill College.
She then enrolled in a paralegal school in Upper Darby.
“I took up the criminal justice program,” she said. “I always watched a lot of criminal and tech shows.”
In 2006, she started work at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County as a Work Release Counselor.
“I did that for a year, and then I got my first professional job, at Public Health Management Corporation in Philadelphia,” she said.
Her last job before joining Friends in 2015 was as a Family Empowerment Specialist at Lutheran Children and Family Service in Philadelphia, where she worked with the child welfare system and families that were at risk of losing their children.”
All the experiences that she has had, she believes, make her relate more to her clients.
“The street knowledge will teach you more than any book ever will,” Wise said. “The book gives you the power of empathy, but life gives you a whole different spin on it. All the adversity, the struggle … I understand.”