John Kelly devotes his life to one compassionate purpose: serving people who are struggling. Whether he is working with troubled youngsters, homeless families, immigrants, or prisoners, John says his goal is to “help in some way for those at risk to realize their potential and lead productive lives.” Now 85, John has touched the lives of thousands of people. To them, he is a humble, steadfast hero.
The second of four boys in a Catholic family, John grew up in San Francisco. His church was the biggest influence in his life. “I was an altar boy and choir member,” John says. “I hung around church a lot and was the one they counted on when something needed to be done.”
People from all walks of life have been counting on John ever since. James “Alex” Alexander, another 2014 Unsung Hero, recalls how meeting John in San Quentin State Prison changed his life: “I met John when I attended a three-day program run by a Christian ministry called Kairos. John was a huge reason the men felt comfortable coming to Kairos. He did not judge us; he accepted us as we were. His words were so inspiring.” Not one to let walls and wire keep him from acts of compassion, John accepted Alex’s collect calls every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. for many years after they first met. “I called to hear his wisdom and soak in his kindness,” Alex says. “And he always answered.”
In the early 1950s, John joined the priesthood, working at St. Emydius Church in San Francisco. Never one for ceremony with- out substance, John ministered far beyond the boundaries of Mass. “I found my greatest rewards caring for the parishioners and the community,” he says. Later, he earned master’s degrees in theology and psychology to help better care for the spiritual and emotional needs of those he was serving.
He also spent 15 years teaching at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, California. “That was an important chapter of my life,” he says. “It taught me how to love and respect young people.”
Wherever John saw injustice, he worked to right those wrongs. In the 1960s, he started to see gaps in the system, where “officialdom,” whether it was the church or local government, failed to take responsibility for issues in the community. He says simply, “I saw that I could help fill in the gaps.”
One of his most ambitious endeavors began when a friend who ran a social service center asked John for help planning a meal program for the hungry in San Mateo County. John responded, and soon was running a meal service for needy families two nights a week. Within a year, the County asked John to expand the food program to cover the entire central county region by merging with Samaritan House, a nonprofit organization providing services to low-income individuals and families.
For 14 years, John led the organization as its executive director, expanding programs during that time to include counseling, a shelter, and a free medical clinic and building a diverse community team to contribute to Samaritan House’s work. “They are all great people,” he says. “We had experts in their fields helping us with every aspect as we expanded our programs. Samaritan House was truly owned by the community—90 percent of the funding came from private community sources and 1,000 local volunteers per month supported our work.”
Today, John still has time and energy for his community, working with Hispanic youth through the San Mateo Police Activities League and mentoring high school Rotary scholars as they tutor middle school kids. He continues to be deeply engaged with incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison and has expanded his work to include county jails.
“What keeps me going is seeing incarcerated men and youth at risk grow to be committed and responsible human beings,” John says. “The most important thing you can do is help another human being.”