Karina O’Malley didn’t really stand a chance. Growing up, her parents incorporated her into their activism early. They even opened and operated a shelter in Wisconsin when she was a teen – and because they needed someone on staff, they all lived in it, too.
“We definitely saw things differently,” she explains. Instead of viewing folks on the margins as “needy,” they were “just people in our lives.”
Advocacy was built into her. She was living in Massachusetts and engaging with protests when she met a long-haired guy. When she moved out to Seattle in 1996, she saw him again.
“I noticed Real Change was run by a young man I’d known in Boston,” she said. It was Tim Harris, Real Change’s founder.
That move to Seattle could have been the end of her activism. Her husband’s company had been acquired by Microsoft and she was living a life that was pretty comfortable.
“I’m very suburban,” she says. She had kids and did some volunteering with her church, but generally kept to herself.
It wasn’t long, though, before she saw that some things really needed to be addressed, particularly out in those suburbs.
“There were no services for women without kids on the East Side. None,” she explains. O’Malley began encountering women who were a lot like her, just a little different.
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“It was disturbing how close our stories had been,” she says, recalling one woman who had a very, very similar life story. The only reason she had become homeless, O’Malley says, is because of bad luck and the death of her husband.
“We were just so similar.”
Slowly and with small steps, O’Malley and her church began to rally. They hosted tent cities, provided safe parking places and ultimately opened The Sophia Way, a women’s shelter in Kirkland. They weren’t being heroic, she says. They were just “doing what needed to be done.”
The Sophia Way was created, in large part, to fill a massive gap in service; it’s a space for women, it’s on the East Side and it’s low-barrier because, O’Malley says, “you gotta give people options.” The organization’s philosophy is one rooted in equality, inclusion, safety and addressing the needs of the people it serves, rather than prescribing the services providers think they need.
Since it opened in 2012, more than 3,000 people have passed through the doors of the organization’s permanenant shelter, Sophia’s Place. And they have O’Malley – and her empathy – to thank.
“These women are used to survival behavior,” she says. “The system is not set up to protect them.”
In addition to her work with The Sophia Way, O’Malley is involved with a number of other groups and organizations. She helped create a 24-hour emergency service, is a coordinator for the Lake Washington United Methodist Church Safe Parking program, serves as the chair of the Kirkland Interfaith Network and has stood to testify and speak out about homelessness in front of numerous groups and governing bodies. She has been honored by King County and the League of Women Voters for her tireless work.
In short, she has touched the lives of thousands of homeless women and families in our area.
But O’Malley says she was just doing what she’d been raised to do: Help out when people need it. To O’Malley, it’s a matter of listening to the needs of the community, of being decisive and giving folks tasks.
“There’s a willingness to help,” she says. “You give folks a way to help and they’ll help. It’s empowering.”
Karina O'Malley will be given the Change Agent award at our annual breakfast on Sept. 18 at the Washington State Convention Center.
Check out the full Sept. 12 - Sept. 18 issue.
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