Saying goodbye to a good friend
A friend is somebody who supports you when you want to get something done. A friend is somebody who lends a shoulder when you are in pain. A friend is somebody who celebrates your accomplishments with you without taking the credit for themselves. And a friend is somebody who gives you honest feedback about your ideas, your skills, and your approach, because you need that feedback to grow. And they do so in a way that feels helpful, not hurtful or judgmental.
Two weeks ago, on June 5, I lost just such a friend. My friend’s name was Kevin Slattery.
I have known Kevin for only five years, but in that short amount of time have developed a strong bond of friendship with him. Kevin was one of those people who was always working on something very important to him, and at the same time when you had a conversation with him you always felt like you, not he, were the center of the conversation. He could be in the middle of building houses and running his company, and at the same time for the few moments you were talking with him, you never felt like you had anything other than his 100% undivided attention.
During my time at United Way with Kevin, he was always my go-to guy for fixing stuff. I admit freely that I’m not handy, which isn’t great when your organization owns and resides in a rickety old building which is held together with duct tape and bailing wire. When something broke, like the windows or the toilets or the siding or the light fixtures, I would call over to Kevin and ask what he suggested. Without fail, no matter how busy, his suggestion was to break away from whatever he was doing and to come right over and fix the thing himself.
During my time at United Way, Kevin was also often the one guy who would question my crazy ideas, and often those interactions led to something much better than I had thought of in the first place. For example, when I suggested that we do a fundraiser which involved rappelling off of the top of a tall building, Kevin didn’t question whether the fundraiser would be successful. What he questioned was how it tied into United Way, and through those conversations we decided to make it collaborative with other nonprofits in the spirit of our mission to LIVE UNITED. Not my original idea. Kevin’s.
During my time at United Way, Kevin also often tried new ways of being involved with the organization and its mission. When we did tours of partnering agencies, for example, Kevin was always there, taking time out of his very busy day, to go see what those organizations do to make our community stronger. I know that he felt that this was a good way to learn how our partnerships improve the community, but I also know he personally enjoyed showing up at these tours to show the agencies how much we care about them and their success.
During my time at United Way, Kevin also got very passionate about the issue of homelessness. Kevin came from a humble background, and he always respected the fact that homelessness can happen to any one of us at any time, due to circumstances beyond our control. When I suggested to our Board that the sleepout would be a good way for us to raise money to invest in programs which break the cycle of homelessness, like those operated by the Front Door Agency, Marguerites, Place, and Family Promise, Kevin gave me a look that said he thought I might have lost my mind. But once we talked about how this could be an experience that people could learn from, and that through that learning they would be better advocates for the homeless, he decided to give it a try, and for 4 years Kevin was there by my side, sleeping in a box, sometimes in the pouring rain.
Last summer Kevin shared with me that he had gotten sick and might not be able to be as present while he focused on his health. This conversation took place about a month before our sleepout, and I know that it broke his heart not to be able to attend and participate. His absence at the sleepout was noted by many, since he had become such an outspoken personal supporter at this event. I know that I missed him there. Since that time, he had been around as much as possible, which in Kevin’s case is more than most. I know from conversations with him that he sorely wished to do more and really ached to be more involved. On Tuesday, March 31st I heard that Kevin was in the hospital and sent him a text to see how he was doing, which is when he told me that he had tested positive for COVID-19. He shared that his symptoms were tolerable and in typical Kevin fashion, from his hospital bed, expressed regret at not being able to participate more in our work.
For me, a bright spot in this story is that I’ve gotten to know Kevin’s son Jaron a bit better. A remarkable young man with a remarkable father, sometimes when I would selfishly reach out to Jaron to ask how things are going, the truth is that I appreciated deep down those interactions because in every son there is a hint of their father, and it felt just a little bit like having my friend around.
When Kevin passed away, we started discussing at United Way how we could remember him. In other organizations you might have a plaque on the wall or name a building after a person. In our case, we have decided to create a special scholarship fund, the “Kevin Slattery Memorial Scholarship,” and to dedicate its proceeds to supporting local young people who are experiencing or breaking out of homelessness, seeking to become self-sufficient by furthering their education. I think Kevin would like that. I know that it makes me smile to think about how Kevin’s memory will be kept alive and his story will be told every year because he cared so much about making the world a better place. His scholarship will be a part of that legacy.
True friends are few and far between in this world. Mentors are even rarer. Finding a good friend who is also a mentor might be the rarest of all. If you find a person who is honest with you; who supports you; who listens to you; who doesn’t judge you, and who helps you to be a better person, then hold that friend dear. That’s a precious thing. To Kevin, who is up there in heaven no doubt wearing his warm smile and his ratty old white LIVE UNTED t-shirt, I say Godspeed. I and so many others who loved you will miss you, my friend.
Mike Apfelberg is president of United Way of Greater Nashua.