Published December 25, 2013
Depending on your point of view...
This is a Christmas story, replete with real-life "angels" -- including one still working to earn his wings -- who give of themselves to help at-risk women and children desperate for shelter from life's storms...
Or, it's a story about a courageous single mom, whose gentleness and infectious kindness belies a ramrod-strong backbone that shoulders the hardships of others until they can do for themselves...
Or, it's the story of a most unique and loving couple -- a woman who'll let no mountain stand in the way of her "vision," a man who had to fall time and again before finding the right path, and a first cup of coffee, over which she'd declare, "You and I are supposed to do great things together."
No matter how you choose to see it, there's no denying that Kim Braine-Tillem is a woman of incredible strength, courage -- and faith.
"It was 2005, I was in Los Angeles with my three kids, my husband and I had separated -- it was NOT part of the plan -- and I got permission from the court to move back to Richmond, Va.," she recalls, managing a smile.
That smile... it's the hint that Kim's about to invite you on her journey.
"So there I am, a single mom, three kids, two dogs and a hamster -- I was 34 at the time -- driving cross country.
"It was quiet in the car and I was praying -- 'God, I'm not sure why I'm going through this, but I trust in you -- when things started to unfold."
She calls it her "vision."
"I was supposed to help other women," she explains so matter-of-factly that you just have to believe. "Help women to help themselves."
But first, Kim needed to help herself.
"I started out working two -- sometimes three -- part-time jobs, before I got my first full-time job," she remembers.
Then there was that cup of coffee... and a guy named Mike.
"I was working the counter in Boychick's Deli," Mike Tillem said, "when I saw her come in."
It took a while -- she smiles and reminds him that he was a "pest" -- but eventually Mike convinced Kim to go for a cup of coffee.
"Five minutes," Kim thought, "and then he'd stop bothering me. But five minutes turned into two hours. He was blunt honest about himself."
As blunt as could be.
"I'm poor and I'm in recovery," Mike told her. And there was more. Much more.
But Kim didn't flinch.
"Normally, I would have run from someone like him," she said. Instead, by the end of their first evening she was sure they'd be doing those "great things together," but she warned him: "Don't get any great ideas that we're gonna be dating."
Meanwhile, as Kim puts it, "doors started flying open." She got a job working on-air for a local Christian radio station, where she also sold ads and learned the ins-and-outs of marketing and networking.
She even managed to earn a masters degree in marriage therapy.
Oh, and that warning to Mike about not dating?
All the while, however, Kim never lost her "vision."
So when the radio station closed and Kim lost her job, she knew it was time for the vision to become her life.
"This is why I've been laid off," she remembers thinking. "It's all part of the plan."
As the saying goes, "When one door closes..."
Kim found work teaching and counseling at a nearby Baptist church, which just happened to own a rundown house perched on hill at the the edge of its parking lot.
That was November, 2010 -- a month later, The Sophie House was born.
Enter Kim's quiet "angel," the key to all of this working.
Dave Maloney was a "friend" of Mike's. To hear him tell it -- reluctantly -- he's by no means a man of substantial means.
"I work at a correctional facility," Dave explains, "and my wife, Linda, and I got lucky when the housing bubble burst and we bought an investment property."
But Dave wasn't looking for a big payoff, the kind that often comes in flipping a cheap house for profit.
Dave was looking to invest in people.
And that's where, it turns out, he and Kim shared a "vision."
"I could see this house was going to be a refuge," Kim recalls. But first she needed to enlist yet another "angel," Cathe Myers.
"Cathe worked with me at the radio station and when it closed I said, 'you're comin' with me.' Cathe makes things happen," Kim says, fists clenched, sitting on the edge of her seat. "While I went around sharing my vision and story with others, Cathe was making The Sophie House work.
"We complement each other -- none of us gets paid, we just ask, 'how can we make a difference?'"
And that's the secret behind Kim's "vision" -- finding people willing to invest in people.
"Here's where we're different," she explains. "We're here to help women in need to get the resources to help themselves. We don't run around trying to raise money or give handouts, and we don't pay for their shelter. If a woman -- it doesn't matter if it's a young mother and her kids or a middle-aged woman left helpless and homeless by divorce -- if she needs a place to live, needs a job, we're here to provide the resources to help her stand on her own.
"If it's a place to live, we screen the applicants for Dave or other potential landlords who can contribute housing. But we don't pay for their housing. That's a handout. We help them to network and get a job, and then Dave works out a fair rent with them, just to cover his cost.
"And we offer other services, through volunteers, by networking with other organizations to provide counseling. And with the help of the church, we run a food pantry, but we also have clothes and other household goods women might need to get back on their feet."
Just then, the proof of Kim's vision walked into The Sophie House offices -- we'll call her "Tiffany," a mom on the run with two kids.
"We were homeless," Tiffany explained, "and I just walked into the church this past September, looking for help... and they referred me to Kim.
"I'm in an abusive marriage -- he left me financially destitute, suffering emotional and mental abuse. I was mentally lost -- how did an educated woman like myself get into this position?
"Then I spoke with Kim, and she was able to relate -- she'd been where I was."
"Small steps," Kim said, "that's what we teach."
With Kim's help, Tiffany's found work as a para-legal, which means she can pay rent and utilities, which makes her a good match for a landlord looking to "bless" someone with a place to live.
"It's about sharing," Kim says. "It's about being accepted for who you are and not for what you have."
"I didn't have a dime," Mike chimes in, "but Kim saw me for who I am. It didn't matter to her whether I had 10 bucks or 10 million. That's what's special about this lady."
"Organizations think it's about chasing the same dollar -- that you need that money to make a difference," Kim preaches. "But collaboration can change a community -- and our country. Finding partnerships -- making a difference in someone's life, not giving them but showing them how they can do for themselves.
'Giving someone the tools to improve their life -- that's something that lasts far longer than a handout."
When all is said and done, that's really Kim's vision this Christmas: Giving woman in need the gift of a better life.
For more information on The Sophie House, go to http://www.thesophiehouse.org
George Kindel is managing editor of FoxNews.com, and is on a journey around America in search of stories that celebrate the Christmas spirit and New Year's hope. If you have a story to suggest, write him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.