CINCINNATI -- Kathy Casper moved to Cincinnati about 15 years ago for a new job without knowing a soul here.
By the time she died suddenly July 1 at the age of 69, she had touched more people’s lives than her daughter could count through her tireless outreach with people experiencing homelessness.
The nonprofit organization Maslow’s Army celebrated Casper’s life and legacy of giving from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday on Fountain Square. The event included free pizza dinners for people in need, the distribution of hygiene products and new and used clothes as well as a silent auction and split-the-pot to raise money for ongoing outreach efforts.
“During winter, she would go under bridges and to the homeless camps. She had been robbed, beat up and had her car stolen, and she kept going back,” said Sam Landis, a co-founder of Maslow’s Army. “This was her life.”
It’s how Casper invested not only her time and energy but also most of her money, said her daughter, Teri Casper.
“She blew through all of her money for other people, even her retirement fund. To help others out of a bind, she would spend everything,” said Casper’s daughter, Teri Casper. “She died a very poor woman.”
Financially, perhaps, but Kathy Casper was someone who gauged happiness by hugs and success by random acts of kindness. By those measures, she was wealthier than most.
“With all the outpouring of love since she died, I see why she did it,” Teri Casper said. “People who used to be homeless or drug addicts are calling me and telling me, ‘I would be nothing without her.’”
Now all those people -- along with friends, family and admirers -- will be able to celebrate Casper’s life together on Fountain Square.
Turkey in tinfoil and 99-cent burgers
Casper didn’t start reaching out to people experiencing homelessness until after she moved here from Kalamazoo, Michigan, her daughter said.
Casper’s husband died young, and she was a single mom from the time her daughter was 8 years old. Casper put all her energy into motherhood back in Michigan but also encouraged her daughter to volunteer and give back from a young age.
“She got me into volunteer work when I was 12,” Teri Casper said. “All my friends were part of these volunteer organizations, too. She would get us all together and drive us to these volunteer events.”
Casper moved to Cincinnati for a job as an accountant with the Internal Revenue Service after her daughter was grown. Teri Casper followed a few years later, she said.
“When she moved to Cincinnati, she didn’t know anybody so she started with a group called the UpDowntowners. They would host little events, kind of like outreaches. She got a taste for it and liked it,” Teri Casper said.
Casper started getting more involved through Vineyard Cincinnati Church, where church leaders encouraged random acts of kindness.
“It just kind of took off,” Teri Casper said. “Her whole life was random acts of kindness. She would start the line at the drive through paying for the car behind her. If it ever rained, she had a stockpile of umbrellas she would keep in her car and would drive around and pass them out.”
Every time Casper got paid, she would buy bags of 99-cent cheeseburgers and take them to local homeless camps and pass them out, her daughter said. Many days she would leave for work at 6 a.m. and not get home until midnight.
And she didn’t take a break for the holidays.
“Every year at Thanksgiving, she would make a full spread -- the turkey, the cranberries, the pies, everything. She would make two meals,” Teri Casper said.
Mother and daughter would eat their meal and then take the second one to homeless camps to serve people there.
“She would just wrap it in tinfoil, the whole thing,” Teri Casper said. “It’s just a turkey in tinfoil. It wasn’t fancy.”
She became known for buying a carton of cheap cigarettes and passing them out in exchange for hugs, and she was always encouraging people to go to church, seek shelter or get into rehab. Teresa Weatherspoon, a friend of Casper's, said Casper kept candy in her pocket, too, and also would trade a piece of candy for a hug.
By 2009, Casper had started her own nonprofit called John 15:12 Ministries that was dedicated to helping homeless people, particularly homeless veterans. But it never got very big and got most of its funding from Casper herself, Teri Casper said.
She did use the nonprofit to buy a 15-passenger bus that she would use to take homeless people on fishing trips. And each Veteran’s Day, she would find out which restaurants were giving free meals to veterans. Then she would drive around, pick up homeless veterans on the bus and take them to eat there.
‘All worth it’
“Those were some of the most awesome experiences of my life,” Teri Casper said. “To see the looks on their faces. They felt they had just been forgotten about, and for someone to do that.”
Weatherspoon, a recovering addict who met Casper in 2011 shortly after Weatherspoon got out of prison, went along on some of those trips, too.
“The greatest gift Kathy ever gave me was faith in myself,” Weatherspoon said. “She was just like Jesus. She really was. She loved everyone. It didn’t matter what color or where you came from. And she taught me that. She taught me to love people where they are.”
Still, Teri Casper said she got frustrated with her mom from time to time.
“She’s had her identity stolen. She was robbed I couldn’t tell you how many times. People would take money out of her wallet or take credit cards out of her wallet and charge them up,” she said. “I would get so angry with her. And then she would get into a story about how ‘There was this one person I helped. I went down and bought him a 99-cent cheeseburger and bribed him into going to church with me, and then he got off the streets and got sober. And that makes it all worth it.’”
Casper’s work was quiet and went unnoticed for many years. She was one of five government employees to win a 2009 Public Service Award from GEICO. She received a $2,500 cash award and an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C., for the award ceremony.
But that was the only time she got recognition for her work, Teri Casper said, and she didn’t even tell most family members about what she was doing.
Her father, Louis Hall, said he didn’t find out about his daughter’s charitable work until after she died.
“I was very, very surprised. Almost shocked at what I heard,” said Hall, a World War II veteran who lives in Michigan. “It’s truly amazing.”
But that was Kathy Casper, her daughter said. And if there’s something she hopes others can learn from her mom’s life and outreach work, Teri Casper said she hopes it is that kindness can change lives -- for those who are giving and receiving it.
“When you do something good, it changes how you feel,” Teri Casper said. “Maybe she found that the cure for depression is just doing good. She always had a smile on her face, and not much got her down. She definitely taught me that.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.