Change Font Size:   A A A

Aug 13, 2014 | EDOT Staff

Improving Lives of Others Central to Jean Kegler’s Mission

Jean Kegler was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, two weeks after the United States entered World War II and attended school in a two-room schoolhouse with outdoor “privies” and a well for drinking water. She holds a psychology degree from Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and an MBA from the University of Houston. Kegler has three grown children and 11 grandchildren and has served as executive director of Epiphany Community Health Outreach (ECHOS) since 2006.



[Diolog Magazine]

CEB: Who taught you about faith? Jesus? What is your earliest memory of church?

JAK: I don’t recall. I do know that I was enrolled, went to nursery school at our church, Salem Evangelical and Reform Church, in Doylestown at age four. During WWII this meant a trip on a public bus from my home in Warrington to the bus stop by the library in Doylestown, then a three-block walk to the church—each morning and each afternoon—by myself! To this day I remember the name of the bus driver—it was Mr. Ed. My mother walked me to the Warrington bus stop on the Route 611 highway. Mr. Ed walked me from the library bus stop three blocks to the Church.

And so how did I meet Jesus?  His pictures were on the walls of the nursery school—and the Sunday school classes I attended. My world was safe and for a good part of my day located at the church. I don’t remember any “Jesus mandates.”  He and the church were just there—and continued to be a part of my life. I sang in the youth choirs and was active in the youth group. That meant my dad made a 10-mile drive weekly after a long day at work to take me to the church. So, while the name of Jesus was not a standard word in our home, my parents made an obvious commitment to raise me in a Christian environment. Perhaps Jesus was Mr. Ed, the bus driver, who made certain I was safe.


CEB: How did you come to the Episcopal Church?

JAK: This I very definitely remember. After college I was working in Philadelphia and a friend invited me to attend St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Doylestown with her. The church had red doors. I had seen it all my life, but never attended a service. I was drawn in by the power of the liturgy. I visited once or twice before moving to London and then to Texas. We lived in Southwest Houston four blocks from where Epiphany was being built in 1972 and often wondered what the unusual structure was going to be. My marriage didn’t last and I found myself needing to go to church—specifically to an Episcopal church. 

One Sunday I bundled up my two children and to Epiphany we went. The children went to the nursery and I sat in one of the back pews and I wept. After the service, a gentleman came up to me and asked if he could help. I said I needed to talk to the priest, pointing to the Rev. Joseph Diraddo. Fr. Diraddo had another service to do but introduced me to some people he thought I might like to meet. I spent the next two hours with three couples who shared experiences similar to what I was going through—and this without Fr. Diraddo knowing what had brought me to the Church that morning. 

He called me the next morning and we met after work that day. I told him that my dream was to enroll my two-year-old son in the church’s preschool program, which had a long waiting list. The next day he called to say my son could attend, beginning immediately. Needless to say, Epiphany—and therefore the Episcopal Church—became our family’s church home—and has been so for the past 40 years


CEB: How does your personal faith inform your life?  

JAK: I believe life is a gift from God and that every child born—regardless of race, ethnicity, religious upbringing—is a special child of God. Each deserves respect at the very least and much love at the very most. And so quite simply I try to live that out every day—in every way—whether in the grocery store or taking a walk or at ECHOS or with children and friends. 


CEB: What was the career path that led you to ECHOS?

JAK: My dream was to become a medical/psychiatric social worker and I received a scholarship to attend Columbia University School of Social Work. The final assignment at the conclusion of my first semester was to write a “paper” describing how one of my male clients had “resolved his oedipal complex with his father.” I had a caseload of four absolutely wonderful intact families living in the projects. These dads worked 18 hours a day so moms could stay home with the children. Well, I wrote a wonderful paper, terminated my association with the school and went on to a variety of employment adventures. I’ve worked at an architectural firm in London, helped young British women emigrate to the U.S. owned a flower shop and worked in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Community Medicine. When I began to think about retiring, I was tapped to be executive director of ECHOS. So I was finally able to fulfill my dream—to reach out and help those in need find resources to meet those needs. I’m more effective because of the experiences and opportunities I had along the 40+ year career path. 


CEB: What is ECHOS’ vision?

JAK: We seek to improve the quality of life for the most vulnerable and at-risk individuals in our community by eliminating the disparities in access to healthcare, education and job training. What we want is for everyone to be able to not only access available health and social services, but to gain the skills and the support that will enable each family to improve their quality of life.


CEB: How does Epiphany interact with the ministry?

JAK: Most of our work—helping people with application assistance programs—is staffed by trained navigators who were clients themselves. Because they have “walked the walk,” our clients are comfortable with them. On the other hand, our volunteers fill a number of important positions. They do vision screenings and referrals, teach ESL classes and staff our small food pantry. We also have volunteers from Epiphany and Santa Maria Virgen who participate in monthly food fairs, distributing food provided by The Houston Food Bank. 

Epiphany is very supportive of the ECHOS ministry, providing the building and the parking, and making repairs. Many members of Epiphany support our ministry with financial donations as well as gifts to the food pantry.


CEB: Who are the people who come to ECHOS?

JAK: A recently completed survey of 529 of our clients revealed the following: 90 percent self-reported being Hispanic and less than 45 years of age. Most were in a partnered relationship with two incomes/household, 43 percent are working full time, 67 percent have access to healthcare through physician/clinic, 20percent were interested in owning/expanding a business and 30 percent attended ESL classes. More than 70% are employed. Average household size is 3.64 individuals. 

On any given day, the preponderance of those one will see at ECHOS are women ages 18–45 with their preschool-aged children. Their primary reason for coming is to receive help in completing and submitting applications for access to healthcare for their children and themselves. They are patient, gentle and very appreciative–and the children make my day as they run and laugh throughout our main service area.


CEB: Can you tell us about some of ECHOS clients? And also, how do you think diversity is viewed differently by different generations?

JAK: A mother originally from Colombia came with two teenage children. They had permanent residency status but didn’t know they were eligible for health care benefits. During the application process, she mentioned that her daughter had a hearing loss in one ear. We were able to help her receive a hearing aid and begin the process necessary to obtain citizenship for herself and her children. 

A newly arrived refugee from Iraq needed follow-up medical care and medications for severe chest/abdominal wounds he had sustained in Iraq, but he was not eligible for “refugee Medicaid” since he had not entered the US in Houston. We helped to get him into the county health department the following day. 


CEB: How does this ministry affect the volunteers? 

JAK: Here is a letter from a parishioner working in our food pantry: 

“A very stylish, beautiful young woman struggled to wheel a double baby buggy into our tiny food pantry. She wearily sank into the chair and presented her intake sheet to us. As we asked her for her photo ID and ECHOS card, she stated that this was the first time that she had ever had to ask anyone for help. She has a three-year old daughter and three-month-old twin boys. She was clearly very tired and embarrassed that she had to depend upon others for help. Her husband had walked out and left her with these young children and had no family nearby … As she broke down, we tried to comfort her, and she said, ‘I never thought I would ever be in this position. I have a degree and I am not stupid.’ She had borrowed a neighbor’s car to come to ECHOS after seeing our flyer at the WIC office. We suggested that she seek help from her faith community, and get some legal counsel to protect herself.”

We helped the young mother begin the process to get a Gold Card for the County Hospital District and Medicaid for the children. She had been unaware these benefits might be available to her. 

The letter continues: “My pantry partner and I were so touched by this young woman’s plight, and we reassured her that she had taken the first very difficult steps to deal with her situation. We hope that the help and advice she received that day from ECHOS will allow her to begin to put the pieces of her life back together.”

And I will add that as I spoke with our food pantry volunteers, we all reflected that “there, but for the Grace of God, could have gone each of us.”


CEB: How has the neighborhood changed in the last 10 years? 

JAK: The economic downturn has resulted in increased numbers of underemployed or financially challenged people in our neighborhood. They do not understand that there are resources available through the state and the county, as well as the nonprofit sector. Many simply do not know that the State of Texas Children’s Medicaid/CHIP programs provide access to medical care for children of families earning up to $44,000 per year for a family of four. Many simply do not know that the Harris Health System, the Legacy Community Health Program, Hope Clinic and others will provide excellent and affordable medical care to those who are not covered under any sort of health insurance policy. Many are not aware of the various assistance ministries that can help with food through “customer choice” food pantries or offer educational programs such as ESL, GED and computer literacy classes to help increase one’s marketable skills. 


CEB: What are ECHOS needs today?  

JAK: I would like to see us be able to expand our educational offerings–specifically English as a Second Language (ESL), GED and computer literacy classes. While this would require some additional financial resource, the real need is for increased volunteers to teach these programs. Clients have told us that they would very much like information as to how to set up their own businesses, another program we would like to have at ECHOS. Again, while this would require some financial resource, it would provide an excellent volunteer opportunity for members of our community who want to give back by sharing their knowledge.


CEB: How have you changed since coming to ECHOS?

JAK: I have come to appreciate the true resiliency of the poor among us—and wonder if I could be as strong as so many of our clients are. My “former worlds” were those of business, of academia—life conducted in quiet, orderly spaces with prescribed programs and procedures. And that was satisfying. My current world is anything but—and it is fun and chaotic—and I absolutely thrive on this!  


CEB: What is your biggest challenge? 

JAK: While I do not see that the need for application assistance will disappear, I do think it will be diminished as more and more agencies utilize the online program developed by the State for Medicaid/CHIP and SNAP programs and the online program developed by Harris Health Systems. Our surveys will determine what other programs we could put into place and/or barriers that we can help to reduce to continue to live out our mission. 

And there’s always the “personal challenge” of aging. I had absolutely no idea when I accepted the position at ECHOS how totally committed I would become to our clients, to our staff, to our mission. The thought of not being at ECHOS every day is just something I cannot fathom. It’s like being a grandma—we love our grandchildren when they come to visit and we are equally delighted when it is time for them to go home! I thoroughly enjoy entering ECHOS each morning and am equally pleased to leave in the late afternoon! And so my personal challenge will be to recognize when it is time for me to step down—and to do so with grace and dignity.