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A Voice for the Homeless

  • Jean Kennett, of White River Junction, Vt., speaks in opposition of a proposed ordinance that would make camping on city land illegal during a Lebanon City Council meeting at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, N.H., on June 15, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Besides bringing food and supplies, running errands, and socializing with the homeless people camped behind the Hannaford supermarket in West Lebanon, N.H., Jean Kennett charges their phones for them in her car while she visits. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jean Kennett, of White River Junction, Vt., checks her messages on her cell phone before heading to the Kilton Library in West Lebanon, N.H., on June 17, 2016 to pick up a formerly homeless woman staying in her home. Kennett has given her phone number to the homeless people she checks in on in case they need help. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After stopping to check on the homeless people residing behind the Hannaford supermarket in West Lebanon, N.H., Jean Kennett, of White River Junction, Vt., picks up a chair a woman who is staying at Kennett's home left behind while camping at the spot on June 17, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jean Kennett, of White River Junction, Vt., jokes with a man who declined to give his name who is staying in the lot behind the Hannaford supermarket on June 17, 2016. Kennett checks on the people staying there twice daily, bringing them food and running errands for them. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2016 12:09:42 AM
Modified: 6/19/2016 12:09:41 AM

Lebanon — Surrounded by more than 100 people in the Lebanon Opera House, Jean Kennett waited patiently for her turn at the microphone.

She was concerned about homeless people living in a lot near the Hannaford supermarket in West Lebanon. If the City Council passed a proposed ordinance to ban camping on city land, she worried the people she considered friends would be evicted.

As the man before her finished speaking Wednesday night, she stood up to the microphone and introduced herself to councilors, faith leaders, local organizations and Lebanon residents.

“Good evening,” she said. “My name’s Jean Kennett and I’m not from Lebanon, but I work with your homeless.”

The 63-year-old Kennett is a frequent visitor to the lot off Market Street, where about a dozen people have set up tents and parked campers. She drives through in her white minivan twice a day, offering toiletries, food, water and even some produce to anyone who will talk to her.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Kennett has devoted a fair amount of time to helping people down on their luck. She can personally identify with many of the people she helps, because she has had her own brushes with homelessness. She has also struggled with substance abuse, but has been sober for several decades and has established enough stability in her life that she can assist others.

“I like her, she helps out a lot,” said a man who camps out near Hannaford and identified himself only as Tom.

He said people there can count on Kennett for rides to the library. She also redistributes surplus food and even occasionally offers her 5-acre property in Hartford near the White River to people who need a place to stay.

“If you need laundry, she’ll do it,” he said.

Kennett was born in White River Junction in 1953, and grew up in the community with an older brother and two parents. She said she first faced the possibility of being homeless when she was 13 and her father threw the entire family out. They were saved only by the kindness of an aunt living in Bethel, she said.

The family endured, and Kennett graduated from Hartford High School directly into a job with the telephone company. But hard times continued to follow.

She began drinking at the age of 27, and started using cocaine a year later. During the worst times, she would consume between 15 and 35 drinks a day. Not just beer and wine, but hard liquor.

“I drank enough alcohol to kill 10 elephants,” she said. “I definitely had a problem. Normal people don’t do that.”

Through friends, she met some of Hartford’s homeless, and would bring them vegetables from her garden to make stew. A few years later, she took a trip to Montpelier and encountered a family being evicted from their home. She took them in out of kindness, an act that would save her life later on.

Kennett received a first reprieve from addiction when a supplier was arrested during a drug run in New Jersey. “All of a sudden, the people that were around me just scattered to the four winds, and I got left alone,” she said.

With no dealer connections left, Kennett decided it was time to stop using cocaine. A few weeks of sobriety cleared her perspective, and she saw that drugs took away her focus on the things she loved, such as horses, German shepherds and portrait painting.

“I ended up hitting rock bottom and sitting in the middle of my living room, crying out for God to help,” Kennett said.

Her alcohol consumption went up as cocaine use decreased, though, until a member of the family she had aided was ordered by a judge to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Not wanting to attend by himself, the man dragged Kennett along.

That’s when things began to turn around, she said. She considered it sacrilegious to drink before meetings, so she would go to a bar after. Eventually, she whittled consumption down to two drinks a week.

Then another person in the program challenged her to stop drinking altogether.

“I was always one to take a dare,” Kennett said. “I quit.”

But that night, she experienced withdrawals for the first time.

“I woke up in the middle of the night rocking back and forth, soaked with sweat, holding my knees,” she said. “(It) felt like hell had opened up its jaws and eaten me alive.”

The experience was a sign from God, she said, to begin taking the AA meetings seriously. Although there were a few relapses after that night, it was the beginning of what would turn into 30 years of sobriety.

Kennett’s relationship with the family she took in would once again be important during her own period of homelessness.

She worked with the telephone company for a combined 23 years, but times weren’t always good. Workers often saw their hours cut, and few other companies were quick to take them in out of fear their new employees would leave when the telephone company began hiring again.

“My work got cut down and I wasn’t making enough money to make my bank payments,” Kennett said.

At that point, she had two choices: wait for the bank to take her house, or leave voluntarily. Kennett made an arrangement to stay with relatives, but they backed out at the last minute.

“I ended up living in a hay barn,” she said.

But the family she had helped came looking for her, and delivered a camper where she was able to sleep and cook.

“My rescuing them turned right around and rescued me,” she said.

Ultimately, Kennett got her job back at the phone company. She now receives disability checks, which help pay for utilities and food.

“I was homeless for just long enough to know I don’t ever want to do that again,” she said.

That’s partially why she is working to help other homeless people now. Kennett wants to deliver some hope to those who might not see any.

“You ever look at people and they look like they’re part of The Walking Dead?” Kennett said. “Their eyes look so hopeless and dead it’s like they’ve already quit.”

“They don’t believe there’s any way out of their situation,” she said. “They don’t believe anybody’s going to help them and they are disappointed when they wake up in the morning and find they’re still alive.”

Kennett’s charity also comes from her faith. She learned to read the Bible at an early age and is a devout Seventh-day Adventist.

Kennet said she attends service at the Plainfield Seventh-day Adventist Church, and was attracted to the church’s strong stance against drinking and smoking. Members often donate items for her to take to the homeless, she said.

“Jean is attempting to do something that many people find difficult, but she really feels compelled to invest herself,” said Kevin Busl, a first elder at the church.

Busl said Kennett’s two children attended the church school and she’s become more active while tending to the homeless.

“Jean is a very concerned citizen for those who are unfortunate,” he said. “She’s been an advocate for helping the poor.”

It’s important that homeless people are able to connect with someone who can associate with their problems, said Bev McKinley, who founded Silent Warriors, a group that helps people who are homeless in the Upper Valley.

“She just wants to give back,” McKinley said. “It’s just from the generosity of her heart.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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