The ongoing legacy of Elizabeth Kemp

Elizabeth Kemp at her home in 2009. (Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)


“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.

“Her mother used to say, ‘Well, if we’re going to die down here, at least we get to all die together.’ That whole idea, the importance of family, of caring from each other, that was ingrained in her from an early age.”

After learning the trade of hotel management at school in Switzerland, Kemp worked and traveled around the world, including a stint at a country club in Connecticut in the mid-1950s.

“Just to give you an idea how resourceful my mom was,” Grant says, “she didn’t have any winter clothes, and she couldn’t afford them. So when it got too cold in Connecticut, she went down to Florida, where it was warm, and worked there for the winter months. Then she went back to Connecticut.”

There were more adventures, trips, a brief period working in San Francisco, and a return to London for a while. Along the way, she met, re-met and eventually married James Kemp, and after a short time in Ukiah, finally settled in Sonoma. It was the early 1960s, and it did not take long for Elizabeth Kemp to become actively involved in her new community.

“As a child, I always remember mom volunteering for different organizations,” says Grant. “She took us with her to help out at Meals on Wheels. She used to host what she called the ‘old folks parties,’ picking up people from retirement homes, bringing them to the gym at St. Francis, where she’d help cook a meal and everyone would play Bingo, or whatever. She did that once a month, and she encouraged me to help out. Mom always encouraged her kids to participate in her volunteer efforts.”

For 25 years, Kemp operated a home daycare, becoming one of the few such centers in the area to take in infants.

“Those daycare kids all became an extension of our family,” Grant says. “Those kids are now grown up, living all over the world – and over the last several months, at the end of my mom’s life, they’ve been sending beautiful notes, letting her know how important she was in their lives.”

That’s a sentiment that many share, from those she helped raise to those she helped feed, to those she encouraged to join the effort to care for others across the community.

“She touched so many people,” adds Sales. “Elizabeth is gone now – but of course, she’s also not. Everything Elizabeth began will continue. It’s not going to stop. We have momentum now, and people are going to continue to be fed. That’s what she would have wanted.”

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