Jo Wynn took a moment of desperation and turned it into the inspiration for her life’s work.
Wynn is the founder and driving force behind Walkin’ In My Shoes, a Kenosha-based charity dedicated to providing aid and programing for homeless people in the community.
She was one of the winners of the 2013 Gateway Technical College Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award for her work.
The organization provides everything from a “survival backpack” program for people living on the street, to drop-in center for homeless teens, links to emergency housing, and training programs aimed at helping homeless people become self sufficient.
Wynn, 60, founded the organization in 1995. At first, she ran the charity from her kitchen table. Now, she operates from a building at 2211 50th St. that includes a business office and a comfortable, living room-like drop-in center.
She is especially passionate about working with homeless youth, kids who come to her when they find themselves bereft and without a support network.
Some teens and young people end up on the street after clashing with family or running away from home, some through alcohol or drug abuse. Some are pushed into the street after aging out of the foster care system. In one case, she said, a teenaged boy came to her because, he told her, he was kicked out of his home when he revealed he was gay.
Wynn said she works with teens on everything from securing birth certificates and Social Security numbers — kids often leave home without any identification or documents — to linking them with education programs and housing.
“I’m like the life coach,” Wynn said. “Whatever they need me to be, I’m there for them. I’m like the surrogate grandmother.”
Wynn’s interest in providing help for the homeless came through her own brief stay on the streets.
Born and raised in Chicago, Wynn had relocated to Arizona as an adult. There she had a successful career and owned a home, but after a job loss she spun into a deep depression and anxiety. She was diagnosed with clinical depression.
“Everything just started falling downhill,” she said. “I got to the point that I just didn’t want to live anymore.”
Wynn eventually lost her home and her savings. With nowhere to turn, she accepted the invitation of a friend to move to Kenosha. Once in the city, unable to afford medication to treat her depression, her mental and financial state worsened until she found herself with nowhere to go.
She found the aid programs available for people in crisis difficult to navigate. The homeless shelter available to her at the time turned her away because she did not want to give up her dog.
“I slept behind the Walgreens downtown,” Wynn said. She said there was a small fenced-in area that she thought must once have held trash containers. She huddled there with her dog for three days.
Eventually, a friend invited her to stay with her. With the help of an aide from Congressman Paul Ryan’s office, she said, she was able to secure Social Security benefits and once again afford medications. Her depression stabilized. It did not take long after that until she was able to find housing of her own.
“It was a horrible, horrible experience,” Wynn said. But once she recovered, she said she was committed to helping others.
“I tell people if you need me, I will be there,” Wynn said.
In her own words
Besides encouraging them to pursue their own dreams, I would say to build their own personal portfolio that shows what they want to do, and what they are doing to get there. Education is always a part of that.
I have an adventurous spirit, and I enjoy my hobbies. I love cooking, I love gardening.
I bum around in my sweats.
I would have gone into social service earlier.