So many in the area know Shirley Kiss for her years of devoted service to those in need. Whether it was a box of food to get them through a hard time, a tank full of gas to help someone to his destination or a shoulder to lean on, as director of We Care of Grundy County, Kiss was there for those who were sometimes in their darkest hours.
What most don’t know, however, is the story behind Kiss’s empathy. She knows about being in those “darkest hours.” She was there herself, many times.
It’s not a story she has shared with many, but she recently decided to collect years of little notes of reminiscences of her life and put them all together in a memoir for her family. It was to be a Christmas gift to them, with additional copies available for purchase online.
Next thing she knew, Amazon was marketing the book nationally, her friends were buying copies and Kevin Schramm was interviewing her on WCSJ/WJDK radio.
“I guess the publishers put it on Facebook,” she said with a soft laugh. “I don’t even do Facebook.” But as Kiss thought about the implications of the release of her book, she realized it could be more than just her memoir for her family. There will be people who read it who might grow stronger because of it, she said, and others who might become a little more empathetic toward the struggles of others.
“If there is a message,” she said, “it would be that you can make it, ‘in spite of’ what you’ve been through in your life. You can’t use the excuse that you can’t do it ‘because of’ what you’ve been through.’”
Current We Care Director Denise Gaska was one of the first to read Kiss’s book.
“I always admired Shirley for what she’d been able to do with We Care,” Gaska said, “but I think like most people in Grundy County, I didn’t know much about her past. I find it amazing that she could rise above all that ... and just turn all that anger into a positive energy. I admire her even more now.”
Today, Kiss is retired from her years as We Care director. She still has her hands in several organizations in the area, including Crimestoppers of Grundy County, the Grundy County Victims’ Assistance Program, the Senior Citizens group and The 100 Club. To this day, she is the only person ever to receive the Key to the City of Morris for her accomplishments.
But there was a long period in her early life when her focus was not on helping others in need. She was fighting her own battle for her very life and that of her children.
Born and raised in Chicago, Kiss’s life even began in dire straits. Pronounced dead at birth, her little body was set aside as doctors worked on her mother. Determined even then, however, Kiss soon began taking breaths on her own, surprising everyone, and grew up a healthy baby and child.
Healthy physically. Distant parents who took every opportunity to criticize and put her down left the young Kiss depressed and believing she had no value in the world. Even making friends was difficult. She felt she didn’t deserve them.
She became withdrawn with the abuse and constant threats from her father, such as, “If you don’t like things around here, there’s the door.”
There were moments of childhood joy. Stolen pieces of ice from the back of the ice truck, playing board games and hide-and-seek with the “Tripp Avenue Gang” in her neighborhood, and petting the horses that pulled the local delivery trucks.
Later on, she thought she had found the perfect husband and began married life, only to discover her husband also was an abuser, and not just a psychological one. The first time he hit her, she had no idea what had happened. The 4-foot-11 Kiss was punched so hard on the side of her head that she lost consciousness and opened her eyes to see hangers swinging up above her. She was lying face-up in her bedroom closet.
It took her a while to realize what had happened. She related the event in her book.
“When she came out, there stood Bud, smiling easily, asking if she was ready. Shirley was stunned: ‘Ready? Ready for what? To have you sock me, whenever I don’t want to do what you want? Are you crazy?’ Slowly, the smile disappeared and he went to her, with actual tears coming down his face. On his knees, he hugged her and apologized over and over. He begged for forgiveness, he had no idea what had happened, but it would never happen again. Fool that she was, because she wanted to, so badly, she believed him.”
Of course, the abuse continued with each attack more violent than the one before. Bruises, contusions, lacerations, broken bones and broken dreams became Kiss’s life. A legal system that was designed in a way that an abused wife would usually lose her children to her abuser kept her from leaving her husband for years until, little by little, a divorce and her children were finally granted to her.
Her life took an immediate change with her newfound peace and became even better with a relationship with a young man who worked in a bowling alley next to the restaurant she waitressed. She would later marry this man, her self-described hero, Joe Kiss, and spend the next decades with her as his beloved wife and mother of his children.
Her story is one of early struggle and hopelessness that through sheer will turned into one of strength and fulfillment. When she and her family moved to Morris with Joe’s job in the mid-1960s, she began working as a volunteer for a very small group called, “We Care for Morris.” She would receive calls mostly from the police station about people down on their luck. She would then use local pantries, other volunteers, and donors to meet their needs.
She organized the group, made things more efficient, and eventually, despite protests from her, became paid director of We Care of Grundy County. She never wanted the money, she said, but was convinced to take it in the process of the organization’s incorporation.
“I always thought of it as a gift from God that I could do this,” she said of her work with We Care.
During her worst years, Kiss had written little notes for her children, telling them about her life in case something happened to her.
“I had all these pieces of paper,” she said.
Her memoir book, “In Spite Of,” was published from her own typewritten manuscript, and Kiss laments what she calls too many typos in what was originally written just for her family members. But for those who know her, the book is still a gift.
Her early years shaped her in ways she could never have imagined in those days. Today, she said she can clearly see how her life experiences helped her become empathetic to others undergoing difficulties and to shape We Care into such a successful and worthwhile charity.
“It made me strong in my faith and in my own confidence that I never dreamed I had,” she said.
And for her six children and many grandchildren, her pride and joys, she can give her memories and her strength and her elation that the cycle of violence from both sides of her family ended with their generation.
Kiss will be signing copies of her book, “In Spite Of,” from 5-7 p.m. Nov. 28, at We Care of Grundy County, 520 W. Illinois Ave., Morris. Copies of the book will be available there, as well as at www.amazon.com.