When Tim Kellgren conducts his final service at Elim Lutheran Church on April 27, he will be saying goodbye to the congregation he has led for 37 years. But he'll be heading out on a high note after being named Citizen of the Year this week, for the years he's spent advocating for Petaluma's most vulnerable citizens.
"It was a remarkable, completely unexpected surprise," he said of the award, which he learned about Tuesday while having his morning latte at Apple Box. "I'm still processing it. I was kind of at a loss for words, which I guess shouldn't happen to clergy."
The genial, bearded Kellgren, now 68, helped launch Petaluma Ecumenical Properties (PEP), which builds and manages housing for seniors and the handicapped. He also cofounded the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) as well as Petaluma Bounty, the production farm to grow necessary food for the community among other projects.
Elece Hempel, director of Petaluma People Services Center, said "There's not a program or a project in this community" that didn't include Kellgren, "who was there at the beginning saying, 'How can we make a difference?"
She added, "He's just been an inspiration to a lot of us."
The award, given by the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce and the Petaluma Argus-Courier, will be formally presented to Kellgren during the Petaluma Community Awards of Excellence on March 27.
Kellgren moved to Petaluma in 1977 from his previous position at a church in the Midwest. "The story goes I was sitting at my dining room table in Illinois asking how one gets on the list to get a parish in California, and the phone rang. The person said he was from Petaluma, and asked, 'Have you ever thought of coming to California?'"
Falling in love with Petaluma's location, climate and community was easy. "I remember thinking I didn't even know they made places as incredible as this." He soon turned his attention to the social needs that he could help repair through his new position.
"We discovered that there was no subsidized senior housing at all in Petaluma," he remembers of his founding of PEP in 1978. "We began to discover people living in all kinds of substandard housing, and decided that that was something that shouldn't happen."
PEP has proven its value over the years, having built 330 units of affordable, quality housing for seniors in Petaluma. Another 100 or so apartments will open later this year, half of them at the eponymous Kellgren Senior Housing on Wood Sorrel Drive at McDowell Boulevard.
Following on his success in helping to create housing for low-income seniors, Kellgren came to see the need for food services as equally valuable. "Probably 10 to 20 percent of Sonoma County, and therefore Petaluma, is food-insecure," he said. "People who aren't sure where all their meals in the week are coming from," he explained.
He added, "It's rather a staggering for such an affluent community and county. We thought that was not acceptable."
The result was the creation in 2006 of Petaluma Bounty, which supports community gardens, food gleaning projects and the educational urban farm growing sustainably farmed food for the community on Shasta Avenue.
"It was Tim who, with the help of the other nonprofit leaders, was able to secure some land," said Hempel, whose organization manages Petaluma Bounty. "Our mission is to provide the healthy food, not just to grow and teach people how to be self-sufficient, but it's really to produce the food that this community really needs."