That’s the word used to describe Kim Holmes by the people who know her best.
Holmes, a property manager for the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, has lost 20 blood relatives and many more friends during the COVID-19 pandemic, but continued to push through and show up for those who needed her most.
“She’s been through a lot,” said her supervisor, Greg Shim. “The word that comes to mind is resilient. She’s very dedicated to serving the people at the Mental Health Association, and she identifies with them and she cares about people. She’s got a gigantic heart.”
Holmes’ job requires compassion, patience – and of course, resilience.
“We’re a 24/7 site and we provide housing for homeless people with mental illness, people with recovering addictions, felons, because you know, they don’t always get second chances,” Holmes said.
Growing up as a part of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes, going to Sequoyah High School, and being an enrolled member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, Holmes had her own experiences with mental health, abuse and other issues that members of the homeless community deal with. It led to her decision to break the cycle and begin to help others heal, especially within her tribal community.
“I’ve grown up with abuse, I’ve grown up with felons, I’ve grown up with drunkenness and drug use and abusive situations. I’ve been abused and I’ve been in situations where I was raped and molested, so I know all the processes of it,” Holmes said.
“I thank God that I’m able to heal from all that and help others,” she said. “I made up my mind when I saw these things happen when I was younger, that I was not going to drink, I was not going to smoke and I’ve stuck with it. I wanted things to change, I guess that’s the compassion I had, I wanted to change and I wanted our people to change.”
In 2009, she was laid off from her job doing medical coding and billing and was hired as Shim’s receptionist and right hand. She has grown to know the residents, understand their needs and do whatever she can to get them back on their feet.
After working there for a few years, she became the property manager and took on more responsibilities, such as wellness checks on residents, and living at one of the sites to ensure everyone was following the rules.
Despite all the hardships and deaths of residents she regularly faces, nothing could have prepared her for the losses that came during the past year.
“We had our first death, my kids’ father, my ex-boyfriend from high school,” Holmes said. “He passed away in February. Then after that, I had five cousins pass.
“It spread like crazy, because one was sick, and he was staying with his brother, then the brother got it, and the nephew got it,” she said. “And then the other uncle got it, you know, just because they all lived in the area and would visit and check on each other. Next there were two sets of aunts and uncles that passed.”
Month by month, Holmes continued to lose family members who were citizens of the Choctaw and Cherokee tribes, and members of their powwow community.
“Kim kept coming to work and kept showing up for the people here that needed her,” Shim said. “Even when she got a little sick and that took a toll on her, she kept showing up because she wanted to.”
Then she got a call at 6:30 a.m. on July 31, 2020, that her brother had died from COVID-19.
“When I got that phone call, my world stopped because that was my brother,” Holmes said. “When we lost our parents, my brother stepped up and took the job of my parents. Him and his wife to my kids stepped up as grandparents. My brother has always taken care of me since I was little so it was hard.”
Ever since and accident where her neighbor was shot, Holmes made it clear she would always answer any calls, no matter what. But after the death of her brother, she knew it was time to take a break for herself and her mental health.
But the deaths didn’t stop, and it has continued to take a toll on her family.
“We just lost three people last week. I’ve lost friends that I’ve grown up with, we got 20 blood, and then you don’t even count the non-blood, the friends, the family, the close ones you know, they’re all gone,” she said.
Holmes said her strength came from two sources: “I believe it’s God and sweet tea that saved me.”
When she returned to work, she knew it was time to demand some changes. The association’s site did not shut down due to COVID, and it was harder than ever to stay staffed while people were quarantining.
“I went to the higher-ups and told them they needed to do something for us. I knew that if I’m going through this, the rest of them are going through it too,” Holmes said.
Bringing up the issues in the workplace not only brought extra sanitization supplies to keep the facility clean, but staff got a $2-per-hour raise.
Over the past year, Holmes wondered what her life would be like if she went back to her old job. She thought about being able to leave work at work and focus on herself, but knew she couldn’t leave the people she cares about behind.
In her adult life, she gave birth to seven children, one of whom still lives at home, and still chose a career serving others.
“I think God prepared me by having seven kids, seven different personalities and dealing with each one differently,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a mom all over again, because they need me.
Her positive attitude has proven necessary as her family has lost yet another member. Both her son and husband are currently quarantining after testing positive, and her husband is being monitored in a Tulsa emergency room.
–Gaylord News is a Washington, D.C.-based reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Cronkite News has partnered with OU to expand coverage of Indigenous communities.