Eleanor Kennedy, 87, of Mount Vernon, died on Wednesday, June 20 in Charlottesville, after a struggle with cancer and pneumonia. Born Oct. 20, 1919, she spent the last years of her life living with her youngest son, Jim Kennedy, in Charlottesville.
Kennedy's ties to Mount Vernon go back to the 70s, when she became an active member of the United Community Ministries, where she served as the executive director for 10 years, and later spearheaded the founding of Route One Corridor Housing, now New Hope Housing.
"Eleanor's mantra was: give a person a fish and you feed [them] for a day; teach a person to fish and you feed [them] for a lifetime," wrote Ruth Dawson, director of development at UCM in a statement. "Eleanor was a woman of great faith who believed passionately in the dignity and right of every human being to hospitality, forgiveness and new life. She spent much of her life pursuing this belief in her persistent, inspiring way. Although she founded the first shelter in Fairfax County, Eleanor always reminded us that the answer to homelessness was not shelter, but housing."
After her work with UCM, Kennedy began the movement toward giving aid to the homeless in the community, eventually helping to found Route One Corridor Housing, now New Hope Housing. The foundation's third shelter, originally named the South County Community Shelter, was re-named in her honor and is now called the Eleanor U. Kennedy Center.
Kennedy was known as a woman of conviction who didn't take no for an answer, said Pam Mitchell, executive director at New Hope Housing.
One of her favorite stories about Eleanor, Mitchell said, was from the time that they were working with the Army and the county to construct the shelter near Fort Belvoir. One of the colonels was being hard to deal with, and Kennedy decided to solve the problem.
"She apparently looked at one of the colonels that was in charge and said 'Colonel, are you with us or against us?' She had a vision and she knew it was the right thing to do," Mitchell said. "She persisted in what she believed in — she didn't take no for an answer."
Mitchell said that when Kennedy first walked into the shelter that is now named after her, she stood in the knee-deep water in the basement and said "I can dream, but I couldn't dream this place into a shelter."
Anne Andrews, friend and colleague, said that Kennedy was one of the few who could effectively work with Fairfax County and with the community. After an initial period of resistance to the idea of building a shelter, Andrews said that Kennedy successfully presented the need to the community
"Later, the community around Mondloch house came forth and said 'we are our brother's keeper and we will help,' Andrews said. "I think it was part of Eleanor's skill in presenting the need to have a homeless shelter in the community — it's not something many communities would welcome."
Her youngest son, Jim Kennedy, said that his mother could be described as a woman of strength, determination, and compassion.
"She just had an incredible force of will," he said. "Which was a pain sometimes but it got things done. When she found her voice I guess in the 70s and started getting into this community stuff she was a power to be reckoned with. She didn't quit. She went after anybody and everybody that would listen to get done what she thought needed to get done."
Kennedy is survived by three children, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Memorial services have not been arranged, but will be held later in July.
Any memorial gifts can be sent to New Hope Housing.