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Karen Olson, 2013
|Occupation||Founder and President of Family Promise|
Karen Olson is an American philanthropist, Founder and President of Family Promise, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless and low-income families achieve sustainable independence and to redress the underlying causes of poverty and homelessness.
Olson was born in Norwalk, Connecticut. She was raised and attended public school in Darien, Connecticut. She attended Lasell College in Auburndale, Massachusetts, where she studied Business Administration.
After college, Olson spent seven years in marketing, the last three at Warner-Lambert (now Pfizer) in Morris Plains, New Jersey. As a marketing executive for Warner-Lambert, she developed promotional campaigns for consumer products such as Schick razors, Listermint mouthwash and Lubriderm lotion.
Engaging the Homeless
In 1982, an unexpected encounter with a homeless woman began an effort that has now touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of homeless and low-income families across the country. Rushing by Grand Central Station to a business meeting in 1982, Olson noticed a homeless woman she'd passed before. This time, she decided impulsively to buy a sandwich for the woman. When she gave it to her, the woman reached for Olson's hand and began a conversation.
For Olson, the conversation broke through a generalized conception of "the homeless" to the realization that "homeless people are people with hopes and dreams like you and me."
Olson and her two young sons began frequent trips to New York to hand out sandwiches to the homeless.  As she came to know some of the city's homeless people, she began to understand the profound loss and disconnection that homelessness causes. That understanding turned into an enduring commitment.
National Interfaith Hospitality Network
Olson learned that there were hundreds of homeless people, including families, in her home community of Union County, New Jersey. She turned to the religious community for help, convinced that there were many who shared her concern and that together they could do what they couldn't do alone. Within ten months, eleven area congregations came forward to provide hospitality space within their buildings. The local YMCA agreed to provide showers and a day center for families. A car dealer discounted a van.
On October 27, 1986, the first Interfaith Hospitality Network opened its doors. As word spread, ten more congregations formed a second Network. Programs for transitional housing, childcare, and financial literacy followed - outgrowths of increased awareness and involvement.
From working in her local area, Olson began a countywide mobilization of religious communities to provide homeless families with shelter and meals and help them get back on their feet. The success of the first Networks led other congregations to seek help in developing similar programs. In 1988 this became a national nonprofit organization, the National Interfaith Hospitality Network.
In 2003, the organization changed its name to Family Promise to reflect a broader range of programs and reaffirm its core commitment to helping families realize their own potential.
Through Olson's leadership, a vast network of volunteers has been created - and is still growing - that connects people in need with those who want to help. Their community engagement model provides a local solution to a national issue. Family Promise now comprises more than 180 Affiliates across 42 states, engaging more than 160,000 volunteers and 6,500 congregations of all religious faiths. More than a half-million people have been served by the organization over the past twenty-five years.
Awards, Works and Recognitions
Olson has received numerous awards for her work, among them the 1992 Annual Points of Light Award from former President George H.W. Bush, the New Jersey Governor’s Pride Award in Social Services, and the Jefferson Award from the American Institute for Public Service. She has been profiled in Family Circle magazine and The New York Times, published in The Huffington Post,and she is featured in the book Courage is Contagious, Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things to Change the Face of America, written in 1999 by Ohio Congressman John Kasich.
Olson serves on the Family Homelessness Task Force of the National Interagency Council on Homelessness and the New Jersey Interagency Council on Homelessness. She is a frequent speaker at meetings and conferences on the issues of poverty and homelessness. She has spoken at the Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas on Mobilizing Communities to End Homelessness, as well as at Harvard University and the University of Kansas.
On the success of her interfaith community model, Olson believes:
“Americans are compassionate people who want to help their neighbors in need – often, they just need to know what to do. It’s astounding what happens when volunteers work together in common cause. Families get back on their feet, and whole communities are strengthened.”
- “Poverty and Homelessness in the United States,” an essay from Just Preaching (Andre Resner Ed. for Family Promise, Chalice Press 2003)
- The Milwaukee Journal (November 7, 1984). "She sandwiches in some compassion". Retrieved July 23, 2014.
- Linda Bloom (August 27, 2013). "Bringing 'promise' of stability for homeless families". umcconnections.org (United Methodist News Service). Retrieved February 5, 2014.
- David Karas (February 25, 2013). "Karen Olson taps religious groups to help the homeless". csmonitor.com (The Christian Science Monitor). Retrieved January 7, 2014.
- Christie R. House (October 18, 2002). "A National Interfaith Network to Combat Homelessness". New World Outlook (Global Ministries: the United Methodist Church). Retrieved January 14, 2014.
- Carol McPhail (May 16, 2013). "A conversation with national Family Promise founder Karen Olson on her vision for fighting homelessness". al.com (Alabama Media Group). Retrieved July 24, 2014.
- Barbara Stewart (January 14, 1996). "IN PERSON; Marketing Hope". The New York Times. Retrieved January 14, 2014.
- Karen Olson (November 18, 2009). "THE BLOG; Because Every Child Deserves a Home". The Huffington Post. Retrieved February 5, 2014.
- Independent Press (August 6, 2012). "Karen Olson appointed to Interagency Council on Homelessness". NJ.com. Retrieved January 7, 2014.
- "Clinton School of Public Service Speaker Series". clintonschoolspeakers.com. University of Arkansas. May 1, 2011. Retrieved July 24, 2014.
- Hallmark Magazine, November, 2007, "Room at the Inn"
- Courier News, April 27, 2007, “Interfaith Hospitality Network launching anti-poverty project”
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, February 18, 2007, “Homeless advocate to speak in city; Local leaders to hear talk on interfaith group”
- The Daily Journal, February 10, 2007, “‘I’m asking for help. Not a handout’: Families work to get back on feet”
- Sarasota Herald-Tribune, February 8, 2007, “Ray of Hope; Interfaith networks are forming in Manatee and Sarasota counties with a focus on helping homeless families”
- First Coast News, November 2, 2006, “Local Churches Providing Shelter to Homeless Families”
- Asbury Park Press, January 18, 2006, “In times of trouble, churches become ‘home’”
- Modesto Bee, December 25, 2005, “Home for the Holidays”
- The Houston Chronicle, October 19, 2005, “Recovering from Rita: Trailers offer shelter close to home as repairs made; Up to 2,000 East Texas families are eligible, but some anti-poverty groups are critical”
- Courage is Contagious, Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things to Change the Face of America (Main Street Books 1999)