Eighteen years ago, Jo Wynn was a 51-year-old woman with a small dog who just needed a roof over her head.
With perseverance and help from community leaders, Wynn quickly found a home and a new start in Kenosha.
Today, she is a champion of the underdogs in our community, from the homeless and veterans to grandparents raising their grandchildren.
In 2005, she founded Walkin ‘in My Shoes, a non-profit street project for homeless residents of Kenosha. WIMS has since established 10 resource programs covering a range of community needs, from community gardens to aftercare services for inmates.
Wynn has also helped other community helpers, including the founder of God’s Kitchen. âShe helped me get my website and name for Godâs Kitchen from Kenosha Inc.,â Arnetta Griffin said.
For her tireless community efforts, Wynn was recognized as the 2021 Kenosha Personality of the Year.
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At firstNow 68, Wynn’s work on behalf of others began after arriving in Kenosha from Arizona in 2003.
She had no cash or a place to sleep.
âI was directed to the INNS program, but I didn’t want to sleep in a church basement,â she said.
The few offers of accommodation she received evaporated when people learned that she had a small dog, a Maltese toy named Isaiah. âI was told I could stay but he had to go,â she said.
After living on the streets for three days, Wynn went to Mayor Antaramian’s office.
âI told him I was homeless and I had this little dog and I couldn’t go anywhere without him,â Wynn said. “(The mayor) made a few calls on my behalf, but everywhere he called, there was nothing planned for someone my age.”
His next stop then was Rep. Paul Ryan’s office located in downtown Kenosha.
There, she discovered that her Arizona Social Security disability funds had been inadvertently blocked by bureaucracy. On the same day, her team helped her obtain these funds.
“It made all the difference in the world,” she said.
Wynn used the money to rent a place her dog would be welcome and started life in Kenosha.
Using her own experience, Wynn set out to provide outreach services to other people living on the streets.
She started out by handing out backpacks filled with essentials that included a sleeping bag and called it the Survival Backpack Program.
To meet the needs of people in different circumstances, Wynn wrote a community resource booklet and put it in the bag as well.
The booklet project took her about six months during which she found community resources specific to the needs of ex-combatants, the elderly, young people and people living with HIV.
âWhen I developed the program, I thought, ‘What can I do to bring the resources to the people? I put everything in this bag; it was the first step, it was dignity.
Wynn said the survival backpack program was inspired in part by her little dog. âI got the idea for the gym bag because I kept it with me in a bag. “
What she thought was her only street outreach program turned out to be the first in a long series for Wynn.
Learning the stories of those who live on the streets, Wynn discovered that accommodation solutions require responding to a wide range of circumstances. These include homeless elderly people, young people who have no longer been placed in foster care and people with disabilities.
She applied for 501 Â© 3 status for the nonprofit organization, and in 2005 Walkin ‘in My Shoes was officially launched.
After leading programs out of her home for several years, in 2009 she moved WIMS to offices at 2211 50th St.
Today, the nonprofit operation is made up of Wynn, a volunteer board of seven Illinois and Kenosha members, community volunteers, her grown children and grandchildren.
Wynn points out that the office functions as a place to talk about benefits and resources and is not “a meeting place.”
Unlike other resource agencies, WIMS does not offer services. âThe program was never set up so that we could get things from people,â she said. âIt made our approach a little different because we go out into the community looking for the homeless. “
Stand on their own two feet
Calling herself a “no-frills” woman, Wynn has expectations of those she serves. “It goes back to that old school ‘stand on your own two feet’.”
âThere’s a small percentage of those who just want to be there, but I’d say about 70% just want to start over. They want to get off the streets and some just need some guidance. “
In addition to the official WIMS programs, Wynn goes the extra mile for those she meets.
Continuing to expand her reach and impact in the community, she recently became a paid entrepreneur providing post-incarceration assistance to inmates at the Kenosha County Detention Center.
âIt’s my only paid job,â she says.
The paid post began with volunteer work bringing survival backpacks to inmates identified as homeless and has grown to include all inmates.
In her role as Follow-up Specialist, Wynn has one-on-one conversations in which she assesses the needs of inmates upon release. âI always ask them to set goals and put them in touch with the Job Center,â she explained.
It also helps to facilitate the return of children placed in foster care with their mother. âIt has become my real passion, working with the prison population,â said Wynn.
Wynn has also mobilized to help ex-combatants encountered during her outreach activities on the streets.
His latest project is the Bunker’s Coffeehouse for Vets. Scheduled to open on the first Saturday in April, at the WIMS offices, the cafe will provide socializing as well as a place for veterans to find support resources, Wynn said.
âIt was an idea in progress before I got involved,â she said. âThese are veterans helping veterans. I’m going to install it and then walk away, âshe said.
âI like to enter a person’s soul. You have to understand a person before you can help them. So I’m just giving them a listening ear to see what I can do to help them achieve their goals, âWynn explained.
Wynn’s “best day” is when she finds out that someone she has helped is now in the community helping others.
When contacted for being named Person of the Year, Wynn exclaimed, âOh my God, I thought (the award) was only for entrepreneurs! For 16 years, I just worked to help others.