Raising Funds for the Visalia Rescue Mission

This is the time of year when brisk days and clear, cold nights find many of us in the kitchen cooking big pots of our favorite soups. Flavorful ingredients simmering on the stove as the delicious aromas wind their way through our homes, fresh bread and butter on the side … few other meals serve up such nourishment, warmth and comfort all in one bowl.

But there are many in the South Valley who don’t have the luxury of making and savoring a bowl of soup. For myriad reasons, they are on the street without homes or food, and their struggles, especially with hunger, leave them with little hope. In fact, “… hope starts with a meal” has become a common phrase in rescue missions because one meal can give someone enough hope to see what their next step might be.

The Visalia Rescue Mission’s Community Kitchen served more than 124,000 meals to people in need in 2017, averaging 328 breakfasts and dinners each day at a cost of $1.92 per meal. On Feb. 20, 240 men, women and children from Visalia and the surrounding cities got a literal taste of how a simple meal gives hope when they attended the mission’s ninth annual Empty Bowls event.

VRM Development Director Ryan Stillwater told the crowd that just getting someone to step into the kitchen for a meal can be a big deal – and the mission’s goal is not only to feed those in need. With the glimmer of hope from a meal as encouragement, perhaps they will stay the night in the shelter and learn more about how the mission can aid them. The next step is to connect those who are willing to a case manager and recovery programs that will help them in the long term. Some will have the opportunity to apply to the mission’s Life Change Academy, a year-long residential program that helps men and women dealing with life issues and chemical dependencies reclaim and develop their mental, physical and spiritual health to rejoin the community as productive, sober individuals.

When guests arrived at the Community Center for the Empty Bowls event, they found an array of handmade clay bowls on display, and the first order of business was to choose the one they wanted for their soup. This was not easy, as Clay Studio Art Zone’s Jorge Garza had beautifully crafted bowls of all shapes, sizes, colors and textures. With help from wife Maribel, the family business has made the bowls for this event for the past eight years. Jorge was on hand with his potter’s wheel to answer questions as he graciously accepted compliments on his creations.

For an additional donation, extra bowls were available to purchase at the end of the night. The bowls serve as both a unique remembrance of the event, as well as a lasting connection to the ever-present and increasing need in the community.

Savory appetizers provided by Café 225 were a tasteful beginning to the evening as friends chatted at their tables accompanied by music from Sarai Guzman on violin and Andrew Kenefick on guitar. Macy’s and other local businesses donated opportunity drawing prizes of merchandise, restaurant and shopping gift cards, and tickets for an upcoming Jethro Tull concert. Event costs were completely covered through sponsor underwriting, allowing all the proceeds from the evening to be used for the general operating needs of the mission.

After a welcome and thank you to the sponsors from Executive Director Al Oliver, tables were dismissed for dinner. Guided by current members of VRM’s Life Change Academy, guests walked across the street, bowls in hand, to the Community Kitchen. The temperature had dropped to the low 40s and the conversation in line centered on hunger and the plight of the homeless, especially during this time of year. The warmth of the kitchen was as welcoming as the staff of the Vintage Press, who cheerfully filled guests’ bowls with their choice of Posole Verde, White Bean with Ham, Broccoli White Cheddar, or Red Potato and Onion Soups. Another staff server offered toppings of cabbage, scallions, croutons, onions and cilantro, and everyone returned to the Community Center to enjoy the soup with fresh bread. It was clear that the impact of the experience of waiting in the cold for a hot meal tangibly connected everyone to the mission of the organization.

After dinner, as cookies and lemon bars from Goodies Cookies and the Visalia Country Club, respectively, were served, guests were drawn into the mission even more as they listened to 2016 Life Change Academy graduate Greg Gonzales’ story.

Greg’s life had spiraled out of control; he was a drug addict arrested multiple times for theft, robbery and DUI. “I was a lost, lonely, broken, sick man.” He spent his days avoiding arrest and shoplifting merchandise from local stores to sell and support his drug habit. “I had no life. I was ashamed and I had no hope …. I was heartbroken because I knew I needed to get clean, but I didn’t know how.”

After his release from jail for a third DUI conviction in 2015, Greg went straight to the Visalia Rescue Mission and joined the Life Change Academy. Through the program, he began to learn about and strengthen his faith. He surrounded himself with healthy relationships, created boundaries and stuck to them. Working hard at the thrift donation warehouse, he gained the skills to prepare for work and life outside the program, ultimately obtaining a job as a dispatcher with a large building materials company, where he is still employed and has been promoted to a supervisory position.

The audience was drawn in as Greg emotionally recalled his experience and how far he has come. “My story has been nothing short of a miracle. I thank God and I thank the Visalia Rescue Mission for giving me the love that it takes for a person to heal. Each day is a chance to start a new beginning.”

As Stillwater thanked Greg and recognized the many Life Change Academy graduates in the room, he repeated that the hope kindled in each of these individuals that led them to change their lives started with one meal. He expressed, on behalf of the mission and the people it serves, his gratitude for everyone’s support and encouraged them to get involved, reiterating that each person’s carefully chosen bowl “… serves as a reminder that we all have a place in addressing the need. With homelessness on the rise in Visalia, Empty Bowls helps us go deeper than the need we see on our streets. It reminds us of our ability to come together and be a part of the solution. It reminds us that with God, nothing is impossible.”

For many people, the end of a workday means that home is just a short drive away, perhaps delayed by a quick stop to get groceries or fill up a parched gas tank. The anticipation of walking through those familiar doors, greeting the family dog with a pat on the head and putting up your feet is often what gets you through the last half hour of the day.

But what about the lucky few who get to call home their place of work? With desktop and dirty dishes only a few steps away from each other, one can’t help but wonder how anyone effectively transitions from the work hustle to the home bustle.

Dani and Kevin Blain — owners of the No. 1 real estate team in the state of California, according to REAL Trends — live, work and play out of their Tulare home and are proof that this lifestyle is not only possible, but can be achieved with incredible success.

“This home is so much more than a house to us,” said Kevin. “We live here, of course, but we work here, too. We conduct 50 percent of our work life out of our home, and then we have the dogs, so we also play here.”

While the Blains don’t claim to have all the answers for how to separate their work and home life, they have learned what works for them in order to balance the two all under the same roof.

“There’s always that challenge because when you’re self-employed, you’re never really done with work,” said Kevin. “But as we’ve gotten older, Dani has helped me realize that we can shut the door and the work will be there tomorrow.”

Even the layout of their home comes in handy for productivity. With Kevin and Dani’s offices conveniently placed on opposite ends of their 3,200-square-foot home, they each have their own space to conduct work and can easily shut the doors when the day is wrapped up.

While you might think that the Blains designed the house themselves with this layout in mind, Kevin actually purchased the home several years before he and Dani were together. It wasn’t until after they married that they added the second office just off the master bedroom, as well as a larger walk-in closet. According to Kevin, the original closet clearly wasn’t designed with a woman’s wardrobe in mind.

“The house is obviously a great design with a lot of awesome features — which is what made me buy it eight years ago — but the closet was a significant flaw forthe size of the home,” said Kevin. “But we fixed it and added on, and I think the reason why we went to the expense and time to make the addition is because we see ourselves owning this home, probably forever.”

When Kevin purchased the house in 2010, he bought it with the hopes of someday sharing it with a wife and family. It wasn’t long until he met Dani through mutual friends at Visalia First and, by 2012, his house also became a home for Dani and her two kids, Eibren and Mia.

Neither Dani nor Kevin came from wealth or privilege, so they say it’s very rewarding to see the results of their hard work shine through the place they call home; Dani is especially grateful to Kevin for blessing them with the house of her dreams.

“It makes me tear up,” said Dani. “I feel so thankful to Kevin because he works so hard and provided us with a really beautiful place to live. We are also so thankful to God because we know without him, our successful business and home life would not be possible.”

From the start, the property has been more than any home Dani could have imagined for herself, but when she first moved in, it was already fully furnished and decorated with Kevin’s bachelor taste. Over the last few years, Dani has implemented her own decorative touch to the house with new furniture, décor and paint.

“Dani was really inspired to redecorate since a lot of the stuff was here before I met her,” said Kevin. “So now, because Dani is half of our home, it has truly become our home.”

To help brighten up the interior, the Blains painted the entire house, installed a lighter granite countertop in the kitchen and recruited the help of Janeen’s Furniture Gallery in Visalia to pick out new furniture and décor pieces that aligned more closely with both of their styles.

From the modern dining room table with 10 tufted side chairs to the rustic bedroom set and wall art, the house has slowly transformed from a bachelor pad into a place that they both can call home.

“We didn’t go for a specific style, but we were drawn to colors, art pieces, chairs and things that were pleasing to the eye,” said Kevin. “Dani also picked a lot of greys and blues because those are the colors I like.”

In addition to the décor, the Blains recently remodeled Kevin’s office and installed a lighter wood laminate in several rooms throughout the home, including the master bedroom, Dani’s office and the guest bedroom. They even implemented a few “green” features like solar panels, an electric car-charging station and artificial grass in the front and back yards.

As avid dog lovers, Kevin and Dani unapologetically designed their pool with their three “fur babies” in mind. With a walk-in beach entry and a large shallow deck, the pebble glass pool is less for swimming and more for laying out and cooling off in the Valley’s extreme heat.

“I’m not going to lie,” Kevin said with a laugh, “but we designed the pool to meet the needs of our dogs.” Dani added, “And we like to lay out, so the deck allows the dogs to be there with us without being deep in the water.”

Knowing that this will likely be their forever home, it’s clear that the Blains have carefully invested in making theproperty fit their needs, both for work and daily living. And despite being successful Realtors who constantly see some of the Central Valley’s most beautiful properties, the love they have for their own home doesn’t waiver.

“At one point, we had purchased a home at the coast, but we got homesick, so we came back … that’s how much we love this house,” said Dani. “And when we go out of town, we probably do maybe two or three days away, but we miss our home and want to come back.”

As native Tulare County residents, the Blains have a lot of family close by, which helps keep them rooted. Not to mention, as owners of the No. 1 Keller Williams Realty team in the nation, their careers keep them close to Tulare, Kings and Fresno counties.

“This is our community,” said Kevin. “We have offices in four locations in the Central Valley. The closest one is in Tulare, and a great segment of our team is in both Fresno and Kings counties.”

When Kevin started as a broker with Keller Williams in 2007, he had a team of two. Within a few years, he grew the team to 10 agents and support staff members. When Dani joined the team in 2014, her previous experience in the staffing industry helped the team grow exponentially.

“She’s done really well and has impacted our team to make us who we are,” said Kevin. “We were a much smaller real estate team three years ago, and what’s changed? Well, Dani has been involved in the business. We went from 10 people to 75.”

Because of their success, real estate agents from around the nation have reached out to Kevin for consulting, which inspired him to start a coaching business this past winter. Although his main focus remains leading his team as a broker, he has really enjoyed helping agents succeed and learn how to reach their goals.

While the Blain family’s business continues to grow, one thing will remain the same: Tulare County will always be their home.

“We are very tied to Tulare, and I think we will always want a home here no matter where life brings us,” said Kevin. “God willing, as long as we can afford it, we’ll always want to keep this house as our main home.”