“Never say no, always say yes. Then figure out how to make ‘yes’ work out.”
That, according to Jude Sales, is how the late Elizabeth Kemp – a tireless supporter of Sonoma’s hungry and homeless and a longtime supporter of numerous local charities – routinely approached every new opportunity to help others.
“If someone called and said, ‘Elizabeth! We have dozens of sandwiches and other things left over from our wedding, can you use them to feed people?’ Elizabeth would always say, ‘Yes! I can!” And then she’d figure out what to do with the food.”
Sales adds: “Elizabeth always found something to do with extra food.”
Kemp passed away at her Sonoma home on Dec. 2. She was 82.
While known for a lifetime of generosity, the legacy of giving she’s best known for in Sonoma began in 2001. That’s when, having become aware of the needs of migrant grape-pickers working in Sonoma Valley vineyards, Kemp conceived of a program that would become known as the Brown Baggers, making and distributing meals to vineyard workers and day laborers, and eventually all manner of hungry folk. The Brown Baggers, now a project of Sonoma Overnight Support (SOS), distributes just over 10,000 burritos, and other quick meals, every year. In addition to distributing the meals, Kemp also helped establish the Brown Bag Café, offering hot meals on Wednesdays at the Grange Hall and Fridays at La Luz Center.
“She had a tremendous belief in human dignity,” says Sales, “and a tremendous belief that people had basic human rights.” Sales, a current SOS board member and self-described “proud Brown Bagger,” says she never would have found her way to volunteering without a serious push from Kemp. “Elizabeth had a way of asking you to do something, where you could just not say no,” she says. “That was part of the beauty of Elizabeth, and that’s exactly how I came to be making burritos every week.”
Sales says that she had recently become unemployed when Kemp first approached her to help out.
“She came to me and said, ‘So, what are you doing on Mondays and Thursdays? Nothing? Then come with me!’ She basically dragged me to St. Leo’s kitchen and put me on the line rolling burritos. She was determined to make the world a better place, and to have fun doing it – and that fun was infectious.”
Kemp, originally Elizabeth Cuss, was born in London in 1934, and lived her childhood at a time when England was gearing up for World War II, setting up a series of circumstances that would shape her view of the world.
“When she was 9, my mom lived through the London Blitz,” says Kemp’s daughter Julianna Grant, a high school English teacher in Gilroy. “There were six kids in her family, and because her mom had fallen ill, she was the one responsible for using their ration cards to do the shopping. She cooked the meals and took care of her two little sisters. That started what seems to be a thread through her life – a desire and willingness to take care of others.”
Grant says her mother often talked about huddling with her parents and siblings in their underground bomb shelter, while the German Luftwaffe rained incendiaries across the city.
Looking for a way to honor and continue the legacy of Elizabeth Kemp?
“Do something kind,” suggests Jude Sales. “Do something good for someone else, preferably a stranger. That’s what Elizabeth did. It’s that basic. I think she would say just find the kindness in your heart for those less fortunate, and then use that kindness to give to someone else.”
Ways to turn that into practical action include volunteering with the Brown Baggers and Sonoma Overnight Support, or by donating cash and material goods to SOS/Brown Baggers. Donations can be sent to Brown Baggers P.O. Box 478, Sonoma, CA 95476. For information on volunteering, call 707-939-6777 or visit sonomaovernightsupport.org
There will be a memorial service for Elizabeth Kemp on Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Hanna Boys Center Auditorium, from 1:30 to 4 p.m.