“I invest in Beacon because I want these young adults to know they are not only seen, but are valued. They matter,” says Karen Contag.
Karen, a member of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, has a heart for youth and young adults who are experiencing homelessness. And she has the collapse of the Soviet Union to thank .
When Karen was in college she knew what she wanted to be: a nuclear arms negotiator. It was a grand dream to make the world a better place. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and with it her future as an arms negotiator. Her thesis advisor suggested she move away from public policy and try something new.
“I totally switched and ended up writing my senior thesis on youth gang involvement in North Minneapolis,” she said. Karen realized it was the accident of birth and sheer luck that kept her from being in the situation that these young people faced. “It’s not a level playing field,” she explained. “There’s no such thing as bootstraps and you can’t everyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they don’t have boots to begin with.” In Karen’s visits to juvenile detention, she saw young people who were smart and entrepreneurial, but without the resources needed to get on the path to success.
Karen never did much with the paper, but it did put her down a new road in caring for youth and young adults who don’t have the resources to make it. She worked for a while in the nonprofit world, married and had children. Karen has always felt drawn to supporting youth , a commitment that found some expression in volunteering with Lutheran Social Services working with youth experiencing homelessness as well as coaching students to find meaningful employment. So when a fellow member at Bethlehem invited her to take a tour of supportive housing for youth at Nicollet Square, she was quick to say ‘yes’. Karen was reminded about the amazing potential of the young adults she met. “These are great kids. They’re awesome kids. They’re smart. They are engaging,” Karen beamed.
Karen and her husband Ted were invited to another event that made the issue of youth homelessness in Edina real. It was here that they met Naomi, a recent graduate of Edina High School who experienced homelessness. Living only a block from the school, the Contags were aware of homeless youth in Edina, but now it was real, flesh and blood. “We were naive to think this didn’t exist in the suburbs, but having someone who was couch hopping brought the issue home to me,” Karen exclaimed. “We just thought it was important to support something in our backyard.” The two became Angel Donors for 66 West. As Angel Donors, they did what they could to help raise money for 66 West, inviting friends to show support for the project financially and through word-of-mouth.
The Contags are wholehearted believers in 66 West. “I think if there were more programs like 66 West, you’d need fewer programs like the one at Great River Landing,” she said, referring to the Beacon property geared towards housing for the formerly incarcerated.
Karen and Ted give out of a sense of abundance. Karen remembers a time early in their marriage. The couple lived in a small house and money was scarce. She noted at the time she had a job where most of her salary came in a Christmas bonus. They would save every solicitation they received throughout the year. When her bonus came in, they would set some aside for savings and then giddily decide where the rest would go. “We would talk about how much money we were going to give away,” she said. “It was like Christmas trying to figure out which organization we were going to support. It was really such a joyful exercise.”
The Contag’s joyful giving includes a sense of urgency. “We thought at this point we’d be farther along as a society,” she says with a sense of frustration. “It is even more important to move the dime to help others.”
At a speech she gave at Beacon’s Ending Homelessness Together annual luncheon last year, Karen explained that giving gives her joy because it brings joy to others. “I love that the wonderful young adults living in Beacon homes get to dream and hope about who they want to be in the future and plan to create that future,” she said.
Karen believes her giving of time and money will allow youth and young adults the space to dream. “I support Beacon because every young adult deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential. Beacon does that by giving young people facing the pain of homelessness the safety and stability of a home.”