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After lifetime of helping others, homeless services director to retire

SALT LAKE CITY — As men and women trickle into Catholic Community Services' St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall for lunch, they are served the day's meal and a helping of human kindness.

Dennis Kelsch, director of homeless services for the nonprofit agency, welcomes the newcomers, greets the regulars — some of whom he has known for decades. Unbeknownst to all, Kelsch is retiring from the nonprofit agency that feeds and provide other day services to people experiencing homelessness.

His 16 years with Catholic Community Services was the capstone of a long career spent serving others as a priest, educator, camp director and a homeless shelter worker, among a few other jobs.

For Kelsch, walking away from a job he loves is bittersweet. Although he deals with a population than can sometimes be exasperating, he says helping to meet their basic needs is gratifying — and humbling.

"It could be any of us," Kelsch said.

But the job has become increasingly demanding and the clientele more challenging. When he started, a typical Catholic Community Services client was a man in his 50s who was an alcoholic. Now, most clients are younger, male and female, many of them drug addicted.

At 73, Kelsch said it's time to step away from a Monday through Friday schedule and devote more time to his wife, Kathy, family and his other interests.

While he's comfortable with his decision, he has mixed emotions about leaving, he said.

"When I hear people say I hate to go to work in the morning, it breaks my heart. I would never want to do that. Here, every morning I wake up, go to work and it's delightful," he said.

Catholic Community Serivces spokeswoman Danielle Stamos said Kelsch keeps the staff at the Weigand Homeless Resource Center focused on the mission at hand. "He starts every staff meeting reminding everyone that our clients are people in need and we are here to take care of them," she said.

In the past two years as debate in Salt Lake County has raged over the next steps of sheltering, housing and providing other services to people experiencing homelessness, Kelsch has kept his focus to meeting people's immediate needs.

Today's need might be food or clean clothes, but Kelsch's acknowledgement or a word of encouragement helps get them through the day, too, Stamos said.

"He's so genuine. He really cares for the clients," she said.

Sometimes they need someone to help them care about themselves, Kelsch said. It's little reminders to take care of themselves, encouraging them to comb their hair or brush their teeth.

"That's where you start sometimes. It's very basic," he said.

At an age when many people would have retired long ago, Kelsch zips around the dining hall, which twice a day feeds hundreds of people. There is a small staff, so Kelsch helps guide volunteers who serve meals and clean up the dining hall, pitching in on jobs big and small.

Kelsch, a "Catholic from cradle to the end," grew up on a fruit farm in western New York state in the Niagara Falls area.

His parents sacrificed to send him, his sister and brother to Catholic school, "which was a task because they had to pay to send us on a public bus 15 miles one way to go to Catholics school in Niagara Falls."

In high school, he thought about becoming a priest. As he grew acquainted with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, the religious order of the priests and brothers who taught at the school, "I was impressed how they kind of looked like a family," he said.

As educators, the brothers and the clerics had high expectations in the classroom, but outside they were collegial and kind to students.

"That attracted me and so I joined in '61. I went to 11 years of training and part of the training was two years teaching at a high school in Philadelphia — 3,000 kids, boys," he said.

In 1972, he was ordained, taught school and later became director of a boys camp that was established by the order for some 250 children ages 7-14 for six weeks each summer. He worked for the order in other capacities, including helping to prepare young men entering the Oblate order.

In the early 1980s, he visited Judge Memorial Catholic High School to speak to students about possible post-secondary education plans.

He enjoyed the visit and asked his order if he could seek a teaching job there. He joined the faculty and taught for a number of years before becoming dean of students.

His next assignment took him to Moab as pastor of St. Pius X Parish for about four years, then to Price to serve at Notre Dame de Lourdes.

The latter assignment was difficult in several ways, he said.

"Money was always short and the assignment was difficult. The (parish) school was on the border of closing. Carbon County people are the greatest in the world, so good and so generous. But it was tough," he said.

During his time there, a Price city councilwoman and her prominent business-owner husband were shot to death by their son-in-law, who later killed himself. So many people attended the funeral that it had to be held in the school gymnasium.

Kelsch said he longed for a closer association with other Oblate clerics and brothers and was eventually received a new assignment in Toledo, Ohio, at a parish that had previously had a priest from the same order.

"The parish was happy with me but i just wasn't happy," he said.

He talked to his superiors, who recommended he get some counseling. He did, "and I knew I had to take a leave."

He eventually headed West, working in Grand Junction, Colorado, at a March of Dimes nonprofit organization. A big part of the job was fundraising, which didn't appeal to Kelsch.

He left the priesthood in the late 1990s.

After living and working in Colorado, he returned to Salt Lake City and worked at what is now the Road Home's downtown shelter for about 18 months.

He later reached out to the Salt Lake City Diocese looking for other opportunities. He reached out to now Rev. Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, who is now administrative assistant to Bishop Oscar Solis.

"He called back and said, 'Why don't you go down to CCS? I think there something down there for you.' That's how I got hired 16 years ago," he said.

He's held a number of positions with the nonprofit agency since, leading programs that have assisted a wide array of populations. He's run a ministry for older adults, a food pantry and one program that provides school supplies to needy children and another that ensures children receive Christmas presents.

He was named director of homeless services in 2011.

As he transitions into retirement, Kelsch plans to spend more time riding bikes. His dream is to restore a vintage automobile.

For the summer, at least, he's planning to work on some personal projects and spend time with his wife, who taught him how to handle a bicycle far more sophisticated than the bike he rode on his family farm.

As he reflects on a long career of service, Kelsch said learned to work by watching his parents and how to teach and serve from his Oblate brothers.

Along the way, he's taught countless other the importance of taking care of those less fortunate.

Wayne Brown, who works in the Catholic Community Services dining hall after many years of volunteering there, said he has learned a lot from watching Kelsch interact with others.

For one, Kelsch comes to work with a positive attitude every day, Brown said.

"He does a job a lot of people couldn't do. I've learned a lot watching him about what it means to be humble with people and what it means to help," he said.