This mother spent 27 years worrying about her homeless son. Here’s how she finds peace by serving others like him

PUYALLUP, Wash. — Rain poured down on yet another cold night in the Pacific Northwest as Diane Kienholz hugged her son Jesse Kinman goodbye for the night. 

Although they both spent the evening helping prepare a temporary shelter for homeless individuals at a local church in their community, their nights would differ greatly.

Kienholz returned to her quiet neighborhood on the hill overlooking the city of Puyallup and got ready for bed with her husband, Steve Kienholz, in their blue split-level home.

Kinman, on the other hand, drove to the Walmart on the south end of Puyallup. After finding a parking spot and using the store’s restroom, he climbed into the back of his black minivan to set up his bed for the night.

Jesse Kinman looks at his phone before going to sleep in his van, outside of Walmart in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Kinman has been homeless for most of his adult life. He struggled with alcohol and a meth addiction for more than 18 years, but is now clean and sober.
Jesse Kinman looks at his phone before going to sleep in his van, outside of Walmart in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Kinman has been homeless for most of his adult life. He struggled with alcohol and a meth addiction for more than 18 years, but is now clean and sober. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

This is a typical Sunday evening for both mother and son, and in a way, it is a representation of Kienholz’s main focus for the last 27 years. Her story is not one of redemption. If it were, her eyes wouldn’t well up with tears every time someone talks about homelessness or drug addictions, which — considering how much time she spends volunteering with the homeless — happens a lot.

Despite her best efforts to suppress it, the worry that has plagued her for most of her son’s adult life rumbles beneath the surface of her emotions like a snoring dragon, waiting to be roused.

“It will eat you alive if you let it,” Kienholz said. That’s the nature of addiction — it doesn’t just go away.

For Kienholz, life has been a long series of trading one set of problems for another. Sometimes the next set is better and sometimes it’s worse, she said. For now, her problems seem manageable, and she counts her blessings daily.

Yes, her son is still homeless and living in his car. But he is also clean and sober. He’s been off meth for a little over a year and hasn’t touched alcohol in eight years. Additionally, Kienholz now knows where her son is most of the time because he has a cell phone. He also spends weekends with his two daughters — Jordan, 13, and Jade Wilkie, 6 — at Kienholz’s house, where they go because their mother works weekends.

It’s hardly a perfect scenario, but it’s a vast improvement from how things were even just a year ago, Kienholz explained.

During some of the worst years in their history, when Kinman had a hard time holding down a job and his meth addiction made him difficult to be around, Sundays became a saving grace for Kienholz amidst the worry of a mother unaware of where her son was or whether he was safe or warm.

Diane Kienholz wipes tears from her eyes while talking about her work with the homeless population at home in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020.
Diane Kienholz wipes tears from her eyes while talking about her work with the homeless population at home in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“Jesse knew that he could come to family dinners on Sunday as long as he wasn’t high or drunk,” she said. “So I lived for Sundays, and sometimes he would come and sometimes he wouldn’t, but he knew he was loved and that he had a place to come and be with family every Sunday for family dinner. And that was my day to know that he was OK.”

They don’t do Sunday family dinners any more, but much like those difficult years, Sundays still act as a saving grace for Kienholz because now she gets to spend them serving others alongside her son.

Just because she wasn’t able to save him doesn’t mean she can’t save someone else’s son or daughter, she said.

A mother’s love in action

Although Puyallup is a small and rather sleepy town compared to nearby cities like Seattle and Tacoma, drugs and homelessness seem to have touched its community and population in much the same way.

Views on homelessness and how to respond to it are constantly debated among city council members and on social media sites by the community, and Kienholz is heavily involved in the discussions — as she is with many civic and social issues in her town. She feels a responsibility to engage, especially on a topic so close to her heart and experience.

When Kienholz first found out her teenage son was doing drugs some 27 years ago, she wasn’t sure how to respond, and in her uncertainty, she did what many parents do. She gave Kinman an ultimatum, which ended with him moving out of the house.

A homeless person sleeps as a freight train passes in Puyallup, Wash., on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020.
A homeless person sleeps as a freight train passes in Puyallup, Wash., on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“In a sense, I made him homeless,” Kienholz said. “But I wasn’t going to let Satan have him, you know. I was going to fight; I was going to be the mother bear.”

Kienholz carries a weight of guilt, like many mothers, for anything she has done that may have contributed to her son’s difficult circumstances in life. But looking back, Kienholz recognizes how drastically her views have changed with time and experience.

Prior to attending addiction recovery classes for families sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kienholz said she hadn’t fully understood what the term “enabling” meant.

“It was so many years later when I finally realized, through taking the addiction recovery classes, that I couldn’t save him,” she said. “And that’s when the fight changed.”

Realizing she was powerless to help her own son was heartbreaking but also powerful, Kienholz said. “When I did those classes, I realized I couldn’t save him. I just wish I had found the classes sooner.”

The sad truth, Kienholz said, is that until an addict is ready to commit to rehab and to change, there isn’t much anyone else can do for them. It has to be their decision and, sometimes, close family and friends aren’t the people best suited to help.

Diane Kienholz and her son Jesse Kinman bow their heads in prayer before volunteers with Freezing Nights feed the homeless at Puyallup Nazarene Church in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Kinman is currently homeless, but still volunteers to help other homeless have a place to sleep. Kienholz transports the homeless to a church to sleep every Sunday night.
Diane Kienholz and her son Jesse Kinman bow their heads in prayer before volunteers with Freezing Nights feed the homeless at Puyallup Nazarene Church in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Kinman is currently homeless, but still volunteers to help other homeless have a place to sleep. Kienholz transports the homeless to a church to sleep every Sunday night. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When they’re ready, they’re ready, and when they’re not, they’re not, she said. “You can’t force them to change, you can just love them.”

But loving an addict is rarely easy.

As Kienholz’s twin sister, Susan McCammon explained it, “Jesse has burned a lot of bridges over the years.”

Many family members, including some of Kinman’s eight siblings, have shut him out of their lives due to poor decisions and behaviors associated with his addiction. In some cases, those same family members have shut Kienholz out of their lives as well because of her continued support for Kinman.

“That’s been hard for her, but she just turns the other cheek and keeps loving them,” McCammon said. “She’s not like most people. She’s so forgiving. But my heart just breaks for her.”

A mother’s softened heart

Oftentimes, the stigma that surrounds the homeless population causes people to think the worst of them, Kienholz said. Many assume they live unsheltered by choice, or that they are all hopeless drug addicts, or that they are too lazy to work. The problem with such assumptions, however, even when there is truth to them, is that they rarely tell the whole story.

It is easy to assume that, because a person’s problems seem chronic, there is no reason to help them, Kienholz said. However, spending time with the homeless in her community has taught her a lot about the importance of Christlike love and the importance of not judging. Such circumstances are better met with love and kindness than with judgment because every person has a story about how they ended up there, she said.

“It’s easy to judge until you spend time with them. When you hear their stories, you can’t help but love them more for what they’ve gone through,” she said. And Kienholz will forever be grateful to those who have refrained from judging her son over the years and have treated him with love and kindness rather than contempt for his choices and circumstances.

Jesse Kinman, his daughter Jade Wilkie, mother Diane Kienholz, and daughter Jordan Wilkie play Uno at Kienholz's home in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Kinman is homeless but often spends Saturday night at his mother's house with his daughters.
Jesse Kinman, his daughter Jade Wilkie, mother Diane Kienholz, and daughter Jordan Wilkie play Uno at Kienholz’s home in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Kinman is homeless but often spends Saturday night at his mother’s house with his daughters. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“I heard through my son how they were treating him and how they helped him, and I wanted to be like that,” she said. “I wanted to be like the person who looked past his past and saw him as a child of God.”

A mother’s cause

Although Kienholz has always sought volunteer and service opportunities in her community, it wasn’t until she experienced the worry that comes with being the parent of a homeless addict that she began volunteering with the homeless.

Her first homeless volunteer experience came around 17 years ago through an assignment her former bishop gave to the youth of their ward. Each week, youth from the ward were assigned to help feed the homeless through a local organization, and Kienholz began accompanying her daughter when she was assigned to go.

A few years later, Kienholz took on another volunteer role with Open Hearth Ministries, helping to place homeless families in temporary shelters like motels.

Then, nearly 11 years ago, Kienholz and her husband, Steve, began volunteering with the Freezing Nights Ministry, and they have been serving with them ever since. It’s a way of responding to the worries and troubles that have plagued her own life for so long by not knowing where her son was spending his nights, or whether he was safe or warm, Kienholz explained.

Diane Kienholz drives Clinton Hayes and other homeless people to Puyallup Nazarene Church, so they can sleep for the night, in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020.
Diane Kienholz drives Clinton Hayes and other homeless people to Puyallup Nazarene Church, so they can sleep for the night, in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

So, on Sunday nights, when the Puyallup Nazarene Church hosts the Freezing Nights Ministry program — a local coalition of churches that sets up temporary shelters for homeless individuals in their community during the cold winter months — Kienholz and her husband drive back and forth in large white vans transporting people from the local day center for the homeless to the church.

Other program volunteers, including Kinman, and sometimes other members of Kienholz’s family, help set up cots and pads for the homeless to sleep on inside the church’s gymnasium and prepare and serve dinner to homeless participants as they arrive.

Serving around 70 individuals each night, the Freezing Nights Ministry program brings together volunteers of many different faiths and backgrounds with the common goal of serving those in need, Kienholz said.

Citing recent news coverage highlighting the housing hardships many in the greater Seattle area are facing, Kienholz explained that, in many ways, homelessness in her area seems to be increasing. Many individuals and families in the community have lost their homes due to rising costs, she said. “They just can’t afford it. It’s so expensive here.”

Diane Kienholz, right, picks up homeless people to drive them to Puyallup Nazarene Church so they can sleep for the night in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020.
Diane Kienholz, right, picks up homeless people to drive them to Puyallup Nazarene Church so they can sleep for the night in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Too often, people are left to sleep in their cars or on the streets if shelters are not made available for them, Kienholz explained. And while many local churches, businesses and other organizations have been stepping up to help, Kienholz said she thinks more can be done to help get people off the streets as much as possible. Too many people aren’t aware of the ways they can help, she said.

Kienholz is constantly looking for more ways to help and is always posting new services opportunities on the JustServe website as part of her Church calling. She also regularly works with a number of local organizations to apply for grants or supplies through Latter-day Saint Charities.

Mike Boisture and Terie Dembeck, who work with the Puyallup Nazarene Church, both shared their gratitude for Kienholz and her many contributions not only to the Freezing Nights Ministry program, but also the homeless in their community in general over the years.

“If we tell her we need anything, she’s on it,” Dembeck said. If the volunteers signed up to  prepare meals somehow fall through or can’t make it, or if they need money for some aspect of the program, like new vans that won’t break down as they transport individuals to and from the program, Kienholz is always there to step in and help. She has the ability to rally people, apply for grants, find money and take care of practically any need they encounter, Dembeck explained.

“She’s a huge asset to the community,” Boisture added. “She’s one of those behind-the-scenes people, always looking for a way to help.” And even more than that, “she spurs others to realize what they can do.”

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a big difference, and most people don’t realize that. But Kienholz helps everyone see that they can contribute, he explained.

Jordan Wilkie carries a box of hygiene kits from South Hill Stake Relief Society president Mauri Crandall's garage to her grandmother's car, to donate to homeless in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020.
Jordan Wilkie carries a box of hygiene kits from South Hill Stake Relief Society president Mauri Crandall’s garage to her grandmother’s car, to donate to homeless in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Among those who realize their potential to contribute are former participants of the program who have been able to get into housing and improve their lives.

It is not uncommon for those who have been helped by these kinds of programs to come back and help once they have stable living situations of their own, Kienholz said. “They come back, and they give back.”

Russell Hitson, one of the former participants in the Freezing Nights Ministry program who now volunteers with the program, said of Kienholz, “She’s really one of the Lord’s servants,” and she has a positive impact on everyone she meets.

A mother’s understanding

Some years ago, when Kinman was still on drugs and Kienholz hardly ever heard from him, she used to drive around town hoping to just catch a glimpse of him walking or sleeping tucked up next to a building.

When friends or relatives caught a glimpse of him, they’d report back to Kienholz that they had seen him, reassuring her that her worst fear had not come to pass.

Jesse Kinman welcomes Ivan Esparza to the Puyallup Nazarene Church as Esparza picks out a cot to sleep on, as part of Freezing Nights, in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Kinman helps volunteer with Freezing Nights and is also homeless himself. Kinman sleeps in his van outside of Walmart.
Jesse Kinman welcomes Ivan Esparza to the Puyallup Nazarene Church as Esparza picks out a cot to sleep on, as part of Freezing Nights, in Puyallup, Wash., on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. Kinman helps volunteer with Freezing Nights and is also homeless himself. Kinman sleeps in his van outside of Walmart. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Kienholz called these reports “Jesse sightings,” and at times they were the only knowledge she had of her son for weeks and months at a time. But they were enough. They weren’t “that phone call that many parents get,” she said, “because we lose a lot of these beautiful people as they overdose or life just gets too hard for them and they just can’t take on any more.”

Kienholz doesn’t wait for “Jesse sightings” anymore. She doesn’t have to. For now, Kinman continues to live in his car and spend his days with “his people” as he calls them. But sometimes, after Kinman has spent the day giving rides to some of his homeless friends around town or doing random jobs for neighbors in his mother’s ward, he’ll report back to his mom on some of the people he’s seen. Then Kienholz can pass those “sightings” on to other mothers she knows who are waiting breathlessly for the hope that comes from knowing their child is OK.