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Tikkun olam: Sherrie Kay

Sherrie Kay at the Sister Jose Women’s Center

For Sherrie Kay, giving back to the community and helping those at risk is simply a way of life.

“Growing up, my family was always involved in Jewish life and tikkun olam and all the different avenues that represents. Somehow that transferred to me. The more injustice I saw the more I wanted to try and change things. In some small way, I believe everybody can change somebody’s life. If I can be a part of that, then that’s what I want to do,” says Kay.

Although she shrinks from the notion that what she does is anything above and beyond the ordinary, those who are fortunate to benefit from Kay’s work at Sister Jose Women’s Center — and the myriad other organizations she’s been involved with over the years — know otherwise.

Kay’s volunteer work on the local scene started shortly after she and her husband, Gary, moved to Tucson to retire in 1991 — after living here briefly in the mid-’80s. “I happened to meet a woman named Jill Rich. She took me by the hand and introduced me to the American Red Cross, and then to homelessness and several other projects that she was involved with, and the rest was history. We worked together for a long time on several things.”

The Kays became immersed in disaster relief with the American Red Cross, helping dispense aid to victims of more than 40 disasters, including hurricanes, floods and the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Kay says that Gary actively pursued a career as an international volunteer, providing assistance in India, Albania, Kosovo, and other countries.

When they joined Congregation Or Chadash, it was only natural for Kay to get on board the temple’s social action committee. “I’m not a big joiner of lunch groups and things like that,” she says. “I’d rather do hands-on work in the community. Shortly after getting involved, Kay found herself in a leadership role. When the position of social action chair opened, Kay stepped up to the challenge.

Under her leadership, Kay says the committee grew and so did the scope of its projects, including Sister Jose Women’s Center, John B. Wright Elementary School, Habitat for Humanity and more. There’s now also a greater emphasis on working with organizations that support refugees and immigrants. Or Chadash hosts forums and offers its facilities for training, to “bring to light what the refugee needs are here in Tucson,” she says.

Kay recently took leave from her role as social action chair and joined the Or Chadash Sisterhood board as a member-at-large focusing on social action and social justice. Through Sisterhood’s affiliation with Women of Reform Judaism, Kay says she is looking forward to getting more involved in international social action programs. “Through Sisterhood’s affiliation with the Women of Reform Judaism, we hope to shine a brighter light on current social problems locally and internationally,” she says.

Her main passion, however, is Sister Jose Women’s Center. She volunteers at least once a week at the converted warehouse on 1050 S. Park Ave. that serves as a day center for homeless women. “I provide a bit of conversation, of dignity, of life that isn’t on the street,” says Kay. “You get to know the women you are helping and they are very appreciative. Sometimes it’s just the little things and the little kindnesses that start to draw out their personalities and allow them to believe and hope that there can be a different life for them.”

Kay also helps sort, size, and hang donated clothing. “Homeless women are allowed to take outfits several times a week because often they don’t have clothing that’s appropriate for the weather. Last summer Women’s Philanthropy [of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona] did a bang up job collecting tennis shoes for the women. Because the women walk the streets in the monsoon season, they get so soaked and their shoes fall apart. So the shoes were very needed.”

Finding the right clothes can make a big difference for a woman living on the streets. “I particularly remember one woman who was very large and fitting her in clothing was difficult. The majority of donations top out at size 14 or 16. She kind of just shrank into the walls. She was quiet, kind of shy,” says Kay. “We obtained a donation of bras from Bravo Boutique, including some very large size bras. When I saw the bras, I wondered if one of them would work for this particular woman. When I took it in, I happened to see her and I asked if she wanted to try it on. She looked at it and wasn’t really sure. She went away and I started doing something else. Pretty soon there was a tap on my shoulder and she said, ‘Look at this. These babies haven’t stood up like this in years!’ That woman went on to trust the system and the process, gain friends and not be ashamed of the way she looks. She found housing for herself and now does part-time work. I think she owes it all to a bra.”

In addition to helping women, Kay focuses on low-income and at risk children. Kay sits on a foster care review board, which reviews 10 to 14 cases of foster children each month. This is one of 30 volunteer boards in Southern Arizona that review the case of each child in the foster care system every six months. All stake holders in the child’s life report to the board. “It’s another venue for them to express what they feel is going on. We listen and relay it to the judge who oversees the case,” says Kay.

She also serves as vice-chair of the Assistance League of Tucson’s Operation School Bell, which provides school clothes or uniforms to children at 40 elementary and middle schools. “A lot of kids get helped, and that’s the name of the game. Some of these kids have never had clothes of their own, only hand-me-downs. They get to pick out what they want. Sometimes that can be critical to a child,” says Kay, who puts in two to three days a week at the Assistance League during the school year.

When asked if she considers her work inspiring to others, Kay answers modestly, “People have said that they look at what I do and wish they could do that. But to me, anyone can do this. I don’t know if I’ve inspired anyone. But I hope so.”

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a writer and editor in Tucson.

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