This is not to imply the North Carolina native has a house full of stray animals or wall-to-wall people in her southeast side home in Cleveland. She doesn’t. What she has is a house full of love. Enter and you can feel it. Linger and you can see it in action. It includes caring for several cuddly kittens, at least one affectionate dog, her good-natured son, Ronnie Wehunt, and a homeless man she found lying on a railroad track some 14 years ago.
In the meantime, Kennedy will visit the sick in her community, bring food or other items to the needy and ask for nothing in return. Nothing. What makes her such a remarkable woman, however, is not just her easygoing, outgoing personality, nor her earnestly seeking out a wandering soul to offer food and shelter. Kennedy’s unique kindness was born from her own misfortunes. Raised as an orphan, she never knew her parents’ love.
The North Carolina orphanage where she lived was described by Kennedy as an abusive environment, so she ran away several times. Whenever she ran away, she had to rely on strangers’ kindness. Finally, at age 14, she was placed in foster care. Wanting a better life, the teenager married at age 15 and moved to Cleveland where she and her husband had three sons and one daughter. It was Kennedy’s mother-in-law, whom everyone called “Granny Wehunt,” who played a major role in the development of Kennedy’s exceptional hospitality and kindness.
“Granny Wehunt was more like a momma to me than anybody else,” Kennedy said. “She worked at C.T. Speck Hospital in Cleveland. That woman picked up strays and helped people all the time. She was really good to me — to everybody. The way she did affected me all my life.”
But the way her husband did also impacted Kennedy’s life. His drunken and unpredictable behavior as the children got older sent the petite mom into protective mode at a time when Cleveland did not have a crisis shelter for families out on the street.
“I was scared and I had no place to go,” Kennedy said. “I didn’t have any people I could go to and the only people my children had was me. My husband and my mother-in-law were both drinking at the time. It wasn’t safe there anymore.”
Kennedy’s youngest son, Ronnie, said he can recall sleeping in a graveyard with his mom and siblings in Cleveland. Shortly thereafter Kennedy took her sons and moved to Oneco, Fla. Her daughter Sharon, the oldest of her children, was old enough to decide to stay in Bradley County and remained in Cleveland, making a life for herself. But there was no easy life awaiting Kennedy and her kids in Florida.
In 1975, their Florida home burned down in the middle of the night, sending Kennedy and her three sons, ages 10, 12 and 15, fleeing for their lives and wandering in the darkness for shelter until they stumbled upon a late-night bar.
“It was dark, dark, dark,” Kennedy recalled. “We thought we could stay there until daylight. The bartender came over to us and asked me what was I doing there with my kids? I told him our house had burned down and we had no place to go. He said, ‘Would you all like something to eat or something to drink?’ Before I could say anything, the kids said, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’”
That act of kindness never left Kennedy’s heart and mind as she witnessed countless other displaced, neglected, abused and unfortunate souls with nowhere to go and no one to turn to seeking food and shelter. Knowing what it was like to sleep in wide open fields or in ditches with her three sons was enough to impress on the resilient mom that people need people, and she was never going to close her heart or her doors to anyone in need. She and her sons left Florida and returned to Cleveland in 1978, but once she got on her feet, she would never again see a person in distress and not reach out to help.
Her rescue and rehabilitation of a homeless man named David who was burnt by the sun and asphalt still baffles the mind of her son, Ronnie, and daughter who see their mom as someone going far beyond being a good Samaritan.
“Momma found David on the railroad tracks. His whole back was stuck to the ground,” Ronnie explained. “When he was picked up he had a big scab that pulled off his back! She nursed him back to health, but then he took a $23,000 car from her and totaled it. He went to jail. She went and got him out and helped him get disability. Then he stole another vehicle of hers — wrecked it — hit a church, and went back to jail. She paid his fines and went back to taking care of him. It was a mess until he finally got straightened out. That’s more than I would do. If someone tried to steal my car, I honestly don’t know if I would do what she did.”
But Kennedy’s kindness did rub off on her children. Ronnie, 47, admits, “We were driving to Florida one time and I took my shoes off and gave them to a boy who was walking barefooted. That was the only pair of shoes I had, but now he was able to hitch-hike with shoes on.”
Her daughter, Sharon, a registered nurse at SkyRidge Medical Center in Cleveland, likewise, goes out of her way to be kind to others in the community — visiting and sitting with the sick, taking people to the hospital and caring for stray animals.
“I just like to do it,” she said.
Even Sharon’s daughter’s, Christy Botts and Shawnda Rants, who work in the emergency room at SkyRidge are known for helping people and animals. Not unlike the way a cycle of domestic violence can pass from one generation to the next, Kennedy belongs to four generations of “caregivers” who have continued a cycle of kindness.
“Momma has been helping people all of my life,” Sharon said. “I never thought about whether her example had rubbed off on us — until now.”
Kennedy, who suffers from congestive heart failure, wiped tears from her eyes as she listened to her children share stories about the many people she has helped over the years without any expectation of reward or gratitude.
“It makes me happy,” she said. “I feel good inside when I can be of help. I’m hoping somebody will do the same for someone else.”
Her outstanding example of hospitality and generosity may go unnoticed by the general public, but the kindness of Kennedy and her descendants may help in creating a cycle of kindness that will impact generations to come — not only in their family, but in the lives of all those they’ve touched.