J'aime La Vie: Kathy Izard
I first learned about this month’s guest several years ago through her book, The Hundred Story Home. A good friend chose this title for our CrossFit Jane book club. I knew from the minute I read the story that I had to meet this incredible woman in person.
Kathy Izard and I instantly connected over chai and coffee. The creative sparks were flying before the drinks were even cool enough to sip. We talked about books, writing, therapy, Charlotte, family and big ideas. There was no small talk. She asked questions—real questions— and told me to “trust the whisper.”
I went home that day, bought a bulletin board and started mapping out my creative plans. Since that first meeting, I know to always have a notebook ready whenever chatting with Kathy. She gives me ideas, challenges me to “keep my butt in a chair to write,” and lights up my creative circuit. She is a confidant and brilliant workshopping partner.
More importantly, Kathy’s life tells an incredible story. She has shared her struggles, her victories and her heart for helping people. When COVID-19 began to descend on Charlotte, I knew to look for Kathy. She is a helper. While she has written a successful memoir and a beautiful children’s book, it’s hard to not think of her first as a servant to the community. In addition to her work with the homeless population, underprivileged children and mental health patients here in Charlotte, she shares her powerful testimony and encourages us all to “have the courage to listen to what’s calling you.”
Numerous coffee dates, book launch parties and writing workshops later, I can say that Kathy continues to inspire me as a writer and a citizen of our community. I am incredibly honored to feature a piece of her life story and inspiration here at J’aime La Vie. As Mary Oliver instructs, Kathy is paying attention and telling us all about it.
J’aime la Vie: The Interview
What is your passion? Tell us what sets your soul on fire.
Being part of a community for good. From the time I was a little girl growing up in El Paso, Texas, I was raised not only to be good but to do good. My two sisters and I were always challenged by my parents to leave the world a better place. For the longest time, I thought that meant doing all the heavy lifting myself—which was exhausting and not very much fun. Especially in my mid-thirties when I founded a small nonprofit. While I was proud of the work I was doing, I became overwhelmed by what I had created with no one to help shoulder the burden (or the joy). I was almost forty years old before I tried another way. I asked three friends to partner on a small project. None of us really had any idea what we were doing but we figured it out together and the result was magical. We all had different skillsets—mostly just from being fulltime moms and past careers—but together we were a force. Over the years this circle has grown to include so many people (mostly women!) to achieve all kinds of community projects. From organizing the first Charlotte fundraiser for the homeless to a seminar on learning differences to creating a community farmstand, the projects we have worked on together have varied but the core mission has remained the same—make Charlotte a better home for all.
How did you discover your passion? Tell us how it began.
The full answer to that question took about 300 pages and it is the book I eventually published called The Hundred Story Home. But I will try to give you a short answer here! While my profession was as a graphic designer, my desire was to move into the nonprofit sector fulltime. I had worked on enough volunteer projects to know that I wanted to wake up every day committed to creating change not creating logos. The thought of making that kind of leap terrified me because I didn’t feel qualified. My college degree was in advertising so it seemed like I would need to get some kind of graduate degree in order to successfully reinvent myself. With four daughters, graduate school felt impossible and frankly, I didn’t know what I would get a degree in. Social work? Nonprofit administration? Changing the World?
I was 44, frustrated and feeling stuck. My main volunteer service hours were focused at the Urban Ministry Center serving in the soup kitchen. Although I had spent ten years volunteering there, I didn’t think that was a place I ever wanted to work. Homelessness felt like a problem that couldn’t be solved. On November 17, 2007, a man asked me four questions that changed my world view forever. The man was Denver Moore, formerly homeless for over thirty years in Texas but who eventually co-authored the New York Times bestselling book Same Kind of Different As Me. On that particular day, I was giving Denver a tour of the Urban Ministry Center and I expected him to be amazed by all our good work. At the time, we were far more than a soup kitchen—there were showers, laundry, mail services, medical assistance and counseling. But Denver saw it differently. As I finished my tour, he asked me this series of questions (with lots of awkward silence in between) for which there were truly no answers,
Where are the beds?
You mean to tell me you do all this good in the day and you lock them out to the bad at night?
Does that make any sense to you?
Are you going to do something about it?
Was I? Was I going to do something about all the folks sleeping in tents and campsites around downtown Charlotte with no place to go? It seemed ridiculous to think that a mother of four, graphic designer, soup kitchen volunteer, might be able to do anything about it. But after that day with Denver Moore, it felt impossible not to try. I could never again serve soup without thinking about the bad at night. I could never unsee what Denver had made me see. So I closed my design business and went full tilt into learning how to solve the problem. I became the first director of a program we called “Homeless to Homes” and eventually, after four years, led the development of Moore Place, Charlotte’s first permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless men and women.
And to be clear—I never did go to graduate school. It turns out anyone can learn pretty much anything if it matters to you. Sometimes that will mean graduate school or a professional degree. But sometimes that just means, being willing to listen, being willing to learn and being willing to wake up every day committed to solving a problem.
How does this passion manifest itself in your life today?
After helping to build Moore Place, three things happened which continued to change how I live my life today. First, I had gained a lot of experience with building, fundraising and organizing that became very useful. I joined a small group led by Bill and Betsy Blue to work for change in mental health. That project took three years but we built and opened HopeWay, Charlotte’s first nonprofit mental health treatment center. Second, I felt compelled to write about all that had happened from meeting Denver to building Moore Place. The only thing I had ever written was an email so that ended up being a six-year project to write and publish my first book. When that book came out, I began to be asked by groups to speak. Initially, it was just book clubs but then, larger groups at churches and philanthropy meetings. So that was the third change, becoming a speaker—something that still makes me sweat no matter how often I do it.
It was through this process of writing and speaking, that I realized how many people are looking for purpose and calling. With so much busyness and noise in our lives, it is difficult to discern what exactly we should be doing with as Mary Oliver suggests, “Our one wild and precious life.” I feel like that has become a large part of my own calling. Not only to be part of a community for good, but to encourage others to find their purpose. In my book I called it “trust the whisper.” After fifteen years of listening for my call, I realized it was probably always whispering to me—I just couldn’t hear it with all my busyness. And when I was hearing it, I tried not to listen. So my life now is still volunteering with the Urban Ministry Center/Men’s Shelter and HopeWay as a Board member for each; speaking to groups about homelessness, mental health and faith; and finally, writing about others who are doing good. I am working on launching a series of writing on my blog and a new website (not yet ready) called Quiet Good—elevating small acts of human kindness among us. This pandemic has certainly shown how we are all tied together and how powerful love and connection can be.
What are some obstacles or fears you face when pursuing your passion?
From working in nonprofits to writing to speaking, I think underlying each one of those changes was the terror of the Imposter Syndrome. In each case I knew I felt unqualified to run a homeless program or raise money or write a book or speak to groups, so I would lie awake at night and ask myself “Who am I to think I can do this?”
Yet in each case, there was a small voice inside me whispering insistently to keep trying. The more I talked to people who had led programs or written books or become speakers, I realized our fears were all the same. When you start something new, of course it is going to be difficult. Of course, it will feel overwhelming. Of course, you will make mistakes—sometimes big ones. But are you willing to keep going because the possible accomplishment matters more to you than the possible failure? Are you willing to be humbled and learn how to do better? I have a quote hanging in my office that says, “Be more loyal to your dreams than your fears.” That pretty much says it all.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Every morning, I start the day by reading other writer’s words. Before I open my phone or watch the news or read the paper, I make a cup of tea, light a candle and read books by faith writers. That daily practice has been even more important during this COVID-19 crisis because there is so much overwhelmingly sad and disturbing news. So I try to anchor each morning in hope and gratitude before I take on the tasks of the day. My three favorite spiritual authors right now are Sue Monk Kidd (When the Heart Waits), Barbara Brown Taylor (Learning to Walk in the Dark) and Frederick Buechner.
Also, people are endlessly inspiring and surprising. Human motivation and innovation to solve and overcome are boundless. Even in this really strange time, there are people creating new ways to serve and I find that my favorite thing to read and write about are people working for good.
Tell us something that you are proud of about yourself.
My marriage and my family. I was lucky enough to fall in love 35 years ago with my husband, Charlie, and I am grateful every day for that chance meeting. Together we raised four amazing daughters (and now added our first son-in-law) who I love spending time with and I hope enjoy spending time with us. I had my own family challenges growing up so raising a close-knit family was really important to me. It was never easy or perfect (there is a least one other book about that!) but Charlie and I did create the family I always wanted and could not live without.
What advice do you have for women hoping to pursue a passion of their own?
First, pay attention to what breaks your heart. Then, ask yourself: what is one small thing I could do about it? That doesn’t have to mean quitting your job and disrupting your life. Maybe it is one small random act of kindness that brings you and others joy. Maybe your passion is as simple as noticing someone who needs a compliment or a kind word or always being a light for someone in the dark.
Second, there is a season for all things. As much as I wanted to jump into a different career, for years, it wasn’t my season. There was a long time I was meant to stay at home with our girls and run my business during naptime or after school. Raising good humans is a great passion to have so don’t feel taking care of your family is not a worthy goal. It is the ultimate goal—note above the one thing I am most proud of.
And finally, I don’t believe it is so much finding your passion as finding your path. At one point I might have said my passion was solving homelessness or mental health or writing books. But each of those have become steps that ultimately, led me to my path. I believe I am finally, at 57 years-old, on my true path. I don’t long to be someone else or do something else. I know I am meant to do many things but mostly, work for good with people I love and encourage others to do the same.
What does self-care look like for you right now? How are you taking care of yourself during the quarantine?
For someone who loves to get stuff done with endless to-do lists that I love checking off, I am trying to love doing less. If all I get done in a day is read and have a zoom call with someone I love, that is my new definition of a productive day. But I try to have a rhythm to my day—morning reading, daily writing, long walk, try a new recipe. Yes, to those of you with small children at home, I know that is no help. There was a time I had four children under six so I deeply feel the pain of what quarantine would have looked like for our family back then. Or even when we had four teenage girls in the house—so much trauma and drama. So if that is you, I would say my advice would be to carve out 15 morning minutes to yourself for calm before the day’s possible storm. And then, thirty minutes of walk or exercise in the afternoon where you can sweat (or scream) out the frustration.
You have been involved with numerous projects recently. Tell us about ways you have been able to help locally during this global pandemic. How can our readers get involved in helping our community?
I have been trying to listen for projects and highlight them on my social media and blog. There is a universal need to help right now and I think we feel limited by not being able to show up physically.
There are several projects happening in Charlotte that allow individuals and families to Do Good:
Make bag lunches for the homeless: https://www.urbanministrycenter.org/wp- content/uploads/2020/04/UMC-MSC-Need-for-Bagged-Lunches.pdf
Create a “Box of Love” for needy families on the Westside of Charlotte: http://www.simplicity-organizers.com/box-of-love/
Support a food pantry created at Bruns Elementary School: https://docs.google.com/document/d/18KNUgxha_cuGagHdXtDcYlTUUiAKT6UF2gPvALAU ZcI/edit
Help provide groceries for Windsor Park school families: https://www.kathyizard.com/2020/03/23/full-bellies-full-hearts/
Collect and donate PPE for healthcare workers: https://www.cltgiveppe.org
Support local restaurants by providing meals to hospital workers: https://www.kathyizard.com/2020/03/28/cltstrong-for-our-healthcare-heroes/ I will keep highlighting and posting more as I learn about them on my Instagram account and on my blog on my website. So if you have ideas or need encouragement for your whisper email me: email@example.com.
Short and Sweet. Share your loves.
A book you love: So. So. Many. On faith: Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark Recent Fiction Escape: The Stationery Shop, Marjan Kamali and Before Anyone Else, by local Charlotte author Leslie Hooten Standing Favorite Fiction: A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
A song you love: "Hold Us Together", Matt Maher
Singing or dancing? Dancing. You definitely do not ever want to hear me sing.
Earth, water, air, or fire? Air. Wide open spaces and Air. List three #kathythings. 1. Chocolate Chips (Ghirardelli 60% Cacao) 2. Candles with triple wood wicks (Magnolia.com Scent: Greenhouse ) 3. Hiking in the woods with my black lab, Dexter
Find out more about Kathy and projects in the Charlotte area:
A special J'aime La Vie treat for the little ones!
My dear friend, Mo Hoffmann, reads Kathy's book, A Good Night for Mr. Coleman, with the help of her daughter, Arabelle.