A heart for the homeless
Alumni Kevin and Laura Cieslukowski are using their nonprofit organization that helps the homeless in San Diego to creatively break down barriers for a portion of the population stigmatized by their life situations.
When Virginia Tech engineering Professor Shane Ross took a research leave this past fall to focus on a project in San Diego, he expected a combination of work, sunshine, calm breezes, and lazy ocean waves.
He and his family never expected to spend a portion of their time feeding the homeless. And they certainly never anticipated doing so next to two Virginia Tech alumni, a husband-and-wife team who have devoted their lives to caring for a segment of the population that many view as burdensome.
Kevin and Laura Cieslukowski founded and oversee a nonprofit organization called We See You San Diego. Started in 2017, the organization cares for the homeless and helps them overcome the hardships of both addiction and life on the streets.
Ross and his family heard about the organization while attending a local church. Their faith led them to attend a Tuesday night event – and it impacted them so much that they went each subsequent Tuesday during Ross’ three-month leave.
“It made me think about how they were really living out the Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) motto in what they've been doing,” said Ross, professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering. “What does it say about them? It says that they are willing to make things happen. … It showed me that they not only see a need, but have the organizational skills, the follow-through, and communication ability to get things done. And more importantly, the desire.”
Faith feeds an idea
Laura and Kevin share a background in faith.
They met through New Life Campus Fellowship at Virginia Tech while pursuing degrees – Kevin in civil engineering from the College of Engineering and Laura in communication from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. Kevin graduated in 1999; Laura, in 2002.
The seed for this idea of helping the homeless started germinating during a church service Laura attended as a 12-year-old. A woman stood before the congregation and shared her testimony of working on the streets as a prostitute, dealing with her pimp, and being addicted to drugs. She told the audience that only Jesus could have transformed her life.
That story mesmerized Laura, sparking a desire to help those living on the streets.
“I'm sitting there listening to this, and I'm like, ‘Here is this beautiful woman who is in a dress covered in flowers with beautiful hair and makeup,'” she said. “I just remember thinking what a beautiful woman she was and how could this be her story?
“I had never heard anything like that. Her story just pierced my heart. I was always hungry to hear stories about life transformation after that day.”
Laura began a career in radio at K92, a popular radio station in Roanoke. She and Kevin eventually married, and her career later took them to New York City. She was recruited for a radio gig in San Diego in 2016, and desiring a lifestyle change, they relocated to the West Coast.
“The first thing I did when we were recruited to go to San Diego was look to see what the situation with homelessness in San Diego was because it had been a dream to have a nonprofit to be able to do something that I was passionate about in addition to the radio career,” she said. “When I saw that San Diego was in the top four in America as far as homelessness goes, I knew there was work to do there.”
They first set out to find a church home for their family. One of the churches they visited promoted a Tuesday night dinner that it held for the homeless.
Kevin and the couple’s oldest daughter went that Tuesday night, and the two church families in charge fed approximately eight homeless people. Coincidentally – or maybe not – both families were leaving San Diego for Northern California and the church needed someone to run the weekly dinner.
Kevin agreed the family would take it over.
“It was my wife's vision and heart's desire to serve the homeless out here in San Diego,” he said. “It was just something that I did more out of obedience to my Christian faith. It's better to give than to receive, and the greatest is the servant, and I just live that out in a practical way. Here was an opportunity to do that.
“One of the things that I've learned is that as I've been serving, the passion grows inside of me, and you feel the weight of the need once you start serving. I’ve really grown in doing this.”
We see you
Through word of mouth, that Tuesday night number grew tremendously.
The Cieslukowskis feed between 225 and 250 today, and anywhere from 50 to 100 volunteers from all over San Diego help. They originally helped as part of their church’s ministry, but the church lacked the financial resources to support it and the Cieslukowskis longed to expand their vision.
In 2019, church staff members suggested the Cieslukowskis form a nonprofit foundation to raise money. The family knew nothing about forming a nonprofit, so they got help.
“I got a lot of really smart people to come around me and show me that part,” Laura said. “We just brought other people in that knew how to do different parts that I didn't know how to do.”
The genesis for the name “We See You San Diego” came about when the family lived in New York City.
While working out on an elliptical machine in a Queens gym, Laura Cieslukowski listened to a podcast about marginalized people, with this episode centered on the homeless. The feelings that she experienced as a 12-year-old in church powerfully resurfaced.
“I went home that day from the gym because I was crying and then I was praying,” she said. “I felt like 'Yeah, you're going to work with people in the homeless community.' Then I heard the words 'we see you' when I was praying.”
“We see you” now serves as the backbone of the foundation. The Cieslukowskis never have categorized homeless people as “homeless people.” Instead, they see this group of people as their “guests.”
“What I found was there was an identity crisis,” Laura said. “A lot of people didn't believe they were worthy of a better life, and so we started getting a vision to pour into them their value so they realize they’re worthy of a better life.
“It started to make sense to me as I was getting to know people, just in the work. I just realized how important that phrase is.”
The mission expands
We See You San Diego is not a traditional soup kitchen.
The term “dinner” was replaced with “dinner party.” The Tuesday night event features a live band. Volunteers serve their homeless guests food and push around dessert carts for after-dinner treats. There is a gourmet coffee bar.
The foundation also collects clothing. Each Tuesday evening, volunteers serve as personal shoppers for the guests. Guests also can pick up items such as toothpaste and deodorant.
The Cieslukowskis are quick to credit their volunteers, many of whom come from different churches to help. Some drive more than an hour just to be a part of the solution.
“My favorite part is seeing other people just serve and go after it,” Kevin said. “There are so many different people in the community that have come alongside of us. I'm really amazed when I see people come week after week and they just want to serve. They want to be there, and they just love it. I've made a lot of friends through this, and that's my favorite part, just the community and culture that we organically kind of created by serving together.”
Many children volunteer, including Laura’s and Kevin’s three daughters. All the teenagers run the coffee bar, taking orders from the guests, and younger children help with other tasks. A security team keeps a close watch on all for safety purposes.
The dinner party exposes those children to real-life issues. They see problems and get to be a part of the solutions.
“My kids, they're just used to life in Blacksburg, Christiansburg, and the New River Valley,” Ross said. “They're not used to seeing homeless people, so they're asking, 'Why are these people there?' They're kind of afraid, and I think this helps show them that these are actual people you could talk to. They're not that different from you and me. … It was a good thing for the whole family just to humanize homelessness.”
Laura, who resigned from her job in radio to run the foundation full time, keeps a list of all the guests who have come – approximately 1,000 since the Cieslukowskis started doing this. That list includes birthdays. Guests are serenaded on their birthdays and get a gift and a card signed by the foundation team. At the end of each Tuesday event, raffle prizes are given away.
Faith in the future
We See You San Diego has expanded into helping with addiction recovery.
One of the first guests helped was a man who overdosed. The foundation found a recovery program for him, but the cost was $700 a month.
“I just told him out of faith, 'We'll pay for it. Say yes. Go do it,’” Kevin said. “Whether I had to pay for it myself or if I could get a bunch of friends to do it or a church to do it, we were going to figure out how to help this guy go into recovery. Once we did that and took that step, people have generously given to help others go.”
The Cieslukowskis spend a lot of time fundraising for the foundation, and Laura specifically uses her communication skills to advocate for the foundation in various media outlets. A big portion of the food for the Tuesday dinner comes from designated food donations, which helps. The Cieslukowskis cultivate donors, apply for grants, and sell merchandise, all to raise money to send their guests to recovery programs.
They also are looking at purchasing a building and have a long-term goal of operating a recovery center. Theirs is a holistic vision of helping from the beginning of the journey to the end.
These are all bold, dynamic plans for a former radio broadcaster and a current civil engineer. But they believe their faith knows no boundaries.
“It’s how do you love people well, and how do you break down that wall of their homelessness,” Laura said. “The things we do are ways we try to make people feel seen.”