Remembering Keith Freeman

Reflections from CCH Staff and Grassroots Leaders

“Keith met no strangers along his way! He saw his fellows as part of his world, community, and I believe, even himself. He had a warm greeting, generous and easy smile, and gave encouragement to most everyone he met. Keith treated each day as a gift, and treated the folks he knew, loved, organized with, and served as gifts themselves. Keith had a passion, a fire, I believe it was akin to a prophetic mission. He believed in the amazing, incredible, and immeasurable skills, talents, and gifts that were inside of people, and he worked along those he knew to help them step into the greatness they had within.”

Wayne Richard, Director of Organizing

“His ability to light up the room and give everyone energy was his power among sharing his story and his passions. Within his capacity, he would do everything to give his support. He gave me strength and hope, he would always say, “keep fighting”. He would always remind me the importance of centering the community in every aspect of the work. He inspired and continue to inspire me within my work. I will miss him dearly, but I will continue to remember and honor him. He will be missed by many, but his legacy lives on through all of us.

I have never met anyone like Keith.  He was an incredible coworker and friend. When I would do community outreach with volunteers and Keith, we would start the mornings at 9:00 am. At the start of every outreach, we would do a quick presentation, introducing ourselves, the work CCH does, and the impact and the reason why we are doing community outreach. In the room, while folks were still waking up as they sip on their cup of coffee or tea while listening to the presentation. When it was Keith’s turn to present and he would be done with his part,  you could feel the energy in the room shift.”

Christy Joyce L. Savellano, Intake and Support Manager 

“To me, Keith was a coach, mentor, teacher, friend. He was someone that was committed to developing himself and everyone around him, to become the best version of ourselves. He is going to be dearly missed, and the space that he is leaving behind is impossible to fill. Nobody can be Keith Freeman, but his legacy will continue to live on in all the people that he met.”

– Nick Jefferson, Associate Director of Organizing, Strategic Campaigns

“In the wake of this tragedy, I’ve heard one message so many times: Keith taught me about myself. What an incredible quality Keith had to connect with others in such a meaningful way. I will forever remember his determination, his attitude, and his power. Keith taught me about myself. A hui hou.

– Samuel Carlson, Manager of Research and Outreach

“When I think of Keith, I think of energy, enthusiasm, and joy. He demonstrated those qualities each and every day and because of that, everyone around him felt a special connection to him. 

I first met Keith in the early 2000s when he was a grass roots leader with CCH working to ensure nonprofit hospitals provided free health care to those who needed it. Later, Keith was involved in a CCH fair-trade coffee project – he was extremely talented at selling coffee at farmers’ markets in the city. Keith maintained his connection to CCH and was hired by the Organizing Department in 2016 and most recently, was CCH’s Senior Community Organizer.

I appreciate all of the opportunities I had to work with Keith – he went out of his way to be helpful in the Law Project’s work whether it was helping arrange a legal clinic at a family shelter or working with those with lived experience of street homelessness. 

To know Keith was also to know that he was so proud of his daughter, Keya. We shared a connection in that both of our daughters attended school and lived in St. Louis. Keith was always excited about the opportunity to see his daughter and shared with me about his trips to St. Louis to visit Keya.

It is hard to put into words how deeply Keith will be missed. I aspire to be like Keith — to find joy and hope in the work, to center those with lived experiences of homelessness in our work, and to love my family, friends, and community.”

– Patricia Nix-Hodes, Director of the Law Project

“Keith’s laugh was contagious! He was one of the hardest working people I knew. Loving, caring and wise! He will be missed dearly.”

– Sherry Johnson, Associate Director of Administration and Technology

“Keith was a team player in every sense of the word. His success was everyone else’s success and nobody was left behind. If there was something he could do to help out, he would be there on a dime and with a smile on his face. It didn’t take much convincing to enlist him as the coach of our mediocre (to put it kindly) softball team, and he took his role very seriously. His positive, can-do attitude shone through even on the darkest days on the field. He was our biggest cheerleader, and even when we were down 0-21, he still had faith we would pull through.

He was a beacon of light for so many. To know Keith was to love Keith. He had the most welcoming personality; you really couldn’t be around him without having a smile on your face. He had a talent for building deep and meaningful relationships, and shared his experience and story generously. His infectious spirit and eternal optimism gave so many of us hope for the future. He will be deeply missed by everyone who knew him, and has left an unfillable hole in our CCH community.”

– Claire Sloss, Associate Director of Communications and Marketing

“I don’t remember the exact date, but I remember so clearly the first day in 2016 when Keith was introduced as the newest member of CCH’s organizing staff. I remember that day because it was the beginning of a seismic shift within CCH. He spoke that day with his trademark enthusiasm and energy, something he became famous for at CCH and within our broader community. He spoke of his time as a leader and his desire to learn and grow as an organizer. I remember that day because I believe it marked the beginning of a what would become an indelible legacy Keith would leave on our community and the work that we do at CCH.

Keith brought passion, determination, and endless amounts of hard-work and leadership to campaigns such as Fight for 15, Bring Chicago Home and advocacy for individuals living on the streets. Our work paths did not cross often, but I enjoyed when they did and I was always grateful to have the opportunity to listen and learn from someone who was such a natural and gifted organizer and leader. But Keith’s greatest gift was the warmth, grace and compassion he showed members of our community. He shared the stories and successes of CCH leaders with such joy and pride. Keith uplifted our community like no one else, highlighting its power, strength, resiliency and love.

Keith was such a gift and a blessing to CCH and our community. He changed us forever for the better. He was one of one. He is loved and missed always.”

– Beth Malik, Associate Director of the Law Project

“The fact that Keith had such a huge following was no surprise. His wisdom, sense of humor, positive attitude, and continual willingness to be vulnerable made him someone you just wanted to be around. But it wasn’t only natural talent and personality that led him to have these many and beautiful relationships. He put in an incredible amount of work to go out and meet people — people in crisis, people weary from being abused by a wide array of systems, people who, from his own accounts, did not want to talk to him at first (or second or third). I am in awe of the work he put in to finding people, building trust with them, and developing them into amazing leaders. I feel incredibly fortunate that I had the opportunity to know and learn from this inspiring human. We are all going to miss him beyond belief.”

– Mary Tarullo, Associate Director of Policy and Strategy

“Keith was an amazing person who lived an abundant life filled with joy. He cared so deeply about the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and seeing the possibilities and power in the people he worked with. His legacy is beautiful and will live on.”

– Alyssa Phillips, Education Attorney 

“The loss of Keith Freeman feels too big for words. In order to understand it you just had to see and experience the magnitude of his talent and personality for yourself. Anyone who did will remember. Keith had a rare and profound ability to inspire those around him, to reach people, and to do the work of bringing others together. The memories that stick out for me are little things. I’ll always remember how he never backed away from the more challenging parts of our work, how he reminded me that we were part of a team, how he collected resources and relationships of all shapes and sizes to share with others.  In short, Keith had a natural gift for organizing, with more energy than most of the rest of us put together. I will always miss him. When he first started at CCH, he told me that he never wanted to leave. He never will.”

– Diane O’Connell, Community Lawyer

“When I shared the news of Keith’s passing with a leader, we started reminiscing on the storied barbecue. Throughout our BCH campaign, our team has brainstormed ways that we can grow our network and bring more leaders in. After sharing traditional ideas about door knocking and increased shelter outreach, Keith would always pitch the park barbecue idea. The idea was the following: we would hold a huge public barbecue in a south- or west-side park. Our staff and grassroots team would blast music, hand out free food, educate folks on homelessness, and listen to what they had to say about the campaign. We would even identify potential grassroots leaders. This idea strikes us as so much of who Keith was. Someone committed to building power and moving strategically but also uncompromising in bringing joy and communion everywhere he went. We aim to continue this legacy, keep fighting, and maybe even throw a barbecue here and there.”

– Alyssa Rodriguez, Community Organizer

Dear Keith,
You were a mentor to us all and we will miss you dearly,
You opened many of our eyes to see things clearly.
You taught us to speak up,
win and never give up!
I remember the day I met you when CCH just threw me on the bus.
It was then I realized that I had a voice.
I learned so much from you in this short period of time.
I saw you JSU cap and wish that dope hat was mine.
God has called you home and we are left here to stand.
To honor your Legacy the best way that we can.
So don’t worry..we got you! Rest Easy!
My dear friend!

Juanita Rodgers, Grassroots Leader

“To know Keith was to know enthusiasm and love. Working alongside him meant that he was always going to go the extra mile. ‘Keith I was thinking maybe 3 or 4 people’ Keith would then show up with 30 people, and that is not exaggeration, 30 people with their children in tow. And they attended because they trusted Keith, they knew he would not lead them astray, and knew that he wanted the best for them. I think he was able to build relationships because he wasn’t afraid to ask questions and always stayed inquisitive about the work.  I sit here wondering what I will miss most about Keith, and I think that it’ll be listening to his music mix every day in the office, there were some staples on their but he always kept some Beyonce in the mix. I am going to miss him terribly but will hold close to the memories we had in working together.”

Niya Kelly, Director of State Legislative Policy, Equity and Transformation

“Keith had a way of making everyone feel valued, welcomed, and heard, no matter the conversation or context. I am grateful for how he went out of his way to fold me into the CCH community when I was new, for his ability to ask questions in a way that revealed a new perspective I had never considered, for his curiosity about and care for others, and for his immense generosity of time, information, and self. Keith was clearly a gifted organizer, with a talent for cultivating the best in everyone he met. Just having a conversation with him made me feel like I too could be better, do better, and lessen the gap between “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be.” He made me truly believe in what could be.

Many times when I would connect with a grassroots leader for a story or a quote to share with funders, the conversation would turn to Keith. How he introduced that individual to CCH, how he continued to support them and deepen their knowledge and skillset, how he changed their lives. I am thankful for the gift of witnessing just a tiny piece of his immense sphere of influence, and for the moments and memories we shared. I will continue to hold the many people who love Keith in my heart and mind – his family, his leaders, all of the CCH organizers, the entire CCH community, as well as everyone else whose lives have intersected with his. He is so loved and incredibly missed.”

– Erin Sindewald, Senior Manager of Development

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