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Vienna Resident Making a Difference

John Horejsi, founder of SALT, talks about starting a volunteer group that brings important social issues to legislators

<bt>John Horejsi, who resides in Vienna, founded Social Action Linking Together (SALT) in 1983. He retired from working in social services this past September, yet his life is just as busy now as when he balanced working for social services organizations and volunteering with SALT. The interview centered on his work with SALT.

Q.What is the mission of SALT and why is it important to the commonwealth of Virginia?

A. SALT works to educate legislators and be a voice for low-income families when no one hears them. SALT is important because it will help people realize that no matter their circumstances, they are not immune to being homeless. Anyone in Virginia can become homeless in a second. For example, there was this woman who was taking care of her terminally ill sister, and she used all of her life savings to pay for a funeral and take care of medical bills. Through Homeless Intervention Program (HIP), which was SALT's first campaign and established in 1995, she was able to get enough money to pay her rent, so she would not lose her house. HIP is a program that provides grants and loans to families who are temporarily at risk of losing their house. If someone needs help, then SALT,

through one of their programs, is there in a time of need.

Q. How did you get the idea to start SALT?

A. I was speaking at a conference on hunger, and afterwards a man came up to me and said that he went to this conference before, and wanted to help, but after the conference was over, there were no programs to help the poor. I sent a sheet around for people to give contact information so we could think of a way to help and get our message out. Eight people signed up and that was the beginning of SALT. The name came from the bible. Salt makes everything better and changes the way things are. SALT reflects what we do and how we see ourselves changing Virginia for the better. We make things go together and we wanted our mission to link together faith and action.

Q. What were some of the first issues addressed by SALT?

A. The first issue we lobbied to Congress was to remove the state's sales tax from the federal food stamps program. We found that $9.5 million belonging to the poor on food stamps went to the state treasury and not into their homes in the way of food or other necessary items. Through SALT's work, Virginia and 18 other states removed the sales tax on the federal food stamps program. Another program that we lobbied was Home for the Holidays campaign, which resulted in HIP. During this campaign, the idea of letter writing came up. We wanted our representatives in both houses to understand which issues were important so they could decide to co-sponsor them. We gave our parishioners an idea of what to write for the letter, but they could personalize it with little facts about why this is important to them and why the delegates should listen. These letters were called Home for the Holidays because they were sent out to look like Christmas cards and they were dealing with keeping people in their homes. Two thousand two hundred letters were sent out that first time and they get sent out with every issue that we decide we want to lobby. After the letters were sent out, we gained a reputation from the legislators of being very persistent and having lots of integrity.

Q. How do you plan on getting youth involved in SALT?

A. That is a topic that has not been fully discussed. We know that to know youth is to know the future, but most teenagers stop volunteering once they get an A in that specific class. There are the exceptions, however. When Horejsi taught social justice at St. Mark's, a student said that he would like to testify on HIP. A homeless girl testified with him. When they testified the legislators were completely focused on them and what they had to say. Their presentation was flawless. I hope that after he speaks to classes, that young people will have greater respect for advocacy. Anyone who is interested is able to join the list-serv and get the e-mails that SALT sends out regarding their next meeting. Members of SALT are going to discuss how they can get youth involved in advocating for those who do not have a voice.

Q. What are your plans for your retirement?

A. I want to continue volunteering until I am in a nursing home. Right now it takes up all of my time, so I am not able to really enjoy being retired, but I do want to spend more time with my family. My dream is to go to the Czech Republic and see where my family is from. I started working on my family's genealogy tree, but I stopped working on it when SALT became big, so I have not worked on it in 20 years. I am also learning how to speak Czech. I spoke it when I was little, but after my grandfather passed away, the family stopped speaking it.

<ro>Fact Box

<lst>• Name: John Horejsi, founder and coordinator of SALT

• Birthday: June 9, 1940 in a small town in southwest corner of Minnesota.

• Family: Mariann, Wife of 36 years; and daughter Christine.

• Profession: Before he retired he worked in social services

• Favorite topic to read: Dorothy Day biographies and reading about Vaclav Havel

• Favorite music: Polka music