A wise man (okay--our COO, John) once said that ABRI is synonymous with Joy Kiss. If you have met or worked alongside Joy during her fourteen-year tenure with the organization, you know this to be an indisputable truth.
Before 2002, Joy's entire career seems like a hand-selected collection of experiences that would ultimately prime her to play one very important part: Chief Executive Officer of ABRI/
Homes for the Brave.
In honor of her service to the Bridgeport community, Mayor Joe Ganim proclaimed February 29 to be Joy Kiss Day.
Once a Nurse, Always a Nurse
When you ask Joy to tell you about her past, she tells you, "I started as a nurse and always will be a nurse."
Joy began her career as a staff nurse at Greenwich Hospital in 1968. She found hospital nursing to be her "true love," and within her first year, rose through the ranks to become the head nurse in the surgical unit. Once Joy's children were enrolled in school, she chose to become more actively involved in their education system. She left her position at the hospital to become a school nurse in her children's school district.
After serving as the school nurse in Fairfield and Guilford, she accepted a position with the New Haven Department of Health, and was chosen by her colleagues to represent them as the Local 884 Union Steward. To bring in extra income as her children approached college-age, Joy took a part-time position as a methadone-dispensing nurse at New Haven's APT Foundation.
Joy admits that she came to APT with her own trepidations and personal prejudices about the types of individuals who fall into substance abuse. She learned quickly that addiction affects people from all walks of life, and that many of the nurses and counselors she worked alongside were in recovery themselves. "It was my first true exposure to people in recovery," Joy recalls. "I truly respected them and-considering the barriers they had been faced with-their ability to put substances aside and give back to other who are struggling."
The Turning Point
In 1993, Joy accepted a full-time position with the APT Foundation. Hungry to learn about her new field, Joy engaged in every continuing education opportunity she could find, and--under the guidance of her mentor, Geri Bryant--became a certified drug and alcohol counselor as well as a certified addiction nurse.
After serving as the nurse counselor for several years, Joy set her sights on management, hoping to have the opportunity to help others shape their careers the way Geri and Roz Liss (the former CEO of the APT Foundation) had helped her.
Joy left the Foundation to become the Nurse Manager of a 22-bed inpatient detox facility in New Haven. Joy never found satisfaction in this role, where she was constantly challenged by a defiant staff and little support from leadership. Every month, she told her mentors that she was miserable and planned to explore other opportunities. They advised her repeatedly to be patient and "hang in there" just a while longer. She blindly accepted their guidance, knowing that they always had her best interests in mind.
Finally, she received the call from Roz: "Fax me your resume."
A few days later, Joy spoke with the President of Applied Behavioral Rehabilitation Institute (ABRI), a new organization that Roz had co-founded. He said that he wanted to interview her for an open position at
Homes for the Brave, a transitional housing program for homeless Vets. Joy remembers being appalled that there were Veterans who did not have a place to call home. She agreed to meet with him and accepted the job without hesitation.
Joy and friends in Homes for the Brave's early years
Homes for the Brave
Joy took her post as the
HFTB Program Manager on July 15, 2002, just two weeks before the home's ribbon cutting. "This place was in shambles," she remembers. The living quarters and offices were empty, the grass hadn't been planted, the walls were half-painted, and the back yard was covered in piles of junk that were left after the building's renovation.
The staff scrambled to assemble furniture, assign office spaces, and make the grounds presentable. Luckily, the ribbon cutting went off without a hitch and attracted over 150 people from the community. With the ceremony behind her, Joy needed to address new problems. The staff struggled to fill beds, so Joy increased referrals by presenting to clinicians at the VA every month. The organization did not have any standard operating procedures in place, so Joy developed them, with much appreciated help from Roz. Then, a large state grant that ABRI was slated to receive fell through completely.
The organization was financially overextended, and the leadership team didn't know how they would pay the staff, let alone debts from the building's construction. Joy feared that without proper staff, funding, or clients to serve,
Homes for the Brave would have to close its doors and displace the fourteen men who had entered the program.
Although she did not have development experience, Joy aggressively applied for grants and raised awareness for the organization by reaching out to civic groups, women's clubs, Veterans' organizations, and anyone who would lend their ear. Eventually, donations and grants came through, and census began to grow. By 2004, Joy was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the organization she had fought so hard to conserve.
Once ABRI found itself on stable financial ground, the Board of Directors decided to expand. In 2006, the agency partnered with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to open the Waldorf Permanent Supportive Housing Program for male Veterans and non-Veterans. Then, with the help of Bill & Shalini Madaras of the Kick for Nick Foundation and countless other community supporters, Joy and the Board set out to open Connecticut's first transitional housing program for female Veterans.
Although ABRI's vision received overwhelming support, its plan to rezone a single-family home as a multiple-unit residence was met with fierce opposition (you can follow the whole story
). After many late nights at City Hall and several denials, the prospect of providing a better life to female Veterans in need began to look bleak.
Finally, the right property came along and in November 2011, ABRI opened Female Soldiers: Forgotten Heroes at the PFC Nicholas A. Madaras House. Joy says that in the grand scheme of her career, this happy occasion was the icing on the cake.
Joy finds it overwhelming to look back on the barriers she faced as ABRI's CEO, and the many individuals and organizations that helped her overcome them. But as she prepares to move on to the next chapter in her life, she can't help but reflect on some of her fondest memories from the past fourteen years.
It's no surprise that all of Joy's favorite moments are those that she's spent with the residents of
FS:FH. She glows as she reminisces about holiday parties, visits from past residents, and Memorial Day parades, where she was able to stand beside Vietnam Veterans as they finally received the warm welcome they deserved.
What Comes Next
Although it is difficult to separate Joy's identity from all that she has achieved at
Homes for the Brave, we know that she has more to accomplish. In retirement, Joy is looking forward to spending more time with her family and visiting America's charming southern cities.
She has been approached by various individuals to participate in new opportunities, but remains tight-lipped on the subject. She has disclosed, however, that she plans to continue serving a population for whom she has immeasurable respect. "Veterans will always, always hold a special place in my heart. What I'll do with that, I have some of my own thoughts. But initially, I'm going to take some time for myself and just take a deep breath."
At Joy's farewell party, over a dozen residents and staff members shared their gratitude for all that Joy has done for the Veteran and homeless Communities.
To all of ABRI's supporters over the past fourteen years, Joy extends her eternal gratitude for making the organization what it is today. Time after time, she has been touched by the generosity you have shown to individuals that you don't even know, because you believe so deeply in our mission and their futures.
And to our residents, Joy thanks you for teaching her something new every day. She admires your strength and respect for one another and believes that "no matter what obstacles you face in life, you can overcome them; it just takes work, perseverance, and the ability to ask for help."
To all future residents, Joy's advice is to simply give the program a chance and to believe that-if you do the right thing-someday, you will be okay.