Neto's Tucson: Bissell, Packard acclaimed for work to help homeless

2013-05-05T00:00:00Z Neto's Tucson: Bissell, Packard acclaimed for work to help homelessErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

They didn't know how it would all turn out when the first homeless people lined up at the soup kitchen, over the objections of city officials and residents.

But Nancy Bissell and Gordon Packard knew they had to act, that they had to serve people in need, that doing nothing was immoral.

While the city eventually shut down the soup kitchen, Packard's and Bissell's courage, outrage and tenacity led them to provide basic human assistance with a little food and shelter, and lots of hope.

Out of that initial act of civil disobedience 30 years ago came the Primavera Foundation, a nonprofit, community-based social- service agency.

Thursday night, Packard, Bissell and the Primavera Foundation received a warm collective hug from supporters for their tireless, selfless work.

"Primavera stands as a beacon in this community," District 3 Congressman Raúl E. Grijalva told the crowd at El Casino Ballroom in South Tucson.

Along with other organizations and individuals in Tucson who stand up for people and their dignity, Grijalva said Primavera conducts business with a conscience "imbedded by Nancy and Gordon."

Rep. Ron Barber from Congressional District 2 and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild also lauded Primavera's founders.

Bissell and Packard said they were inspired in their mission of social justice by their former pastor, the late Rev. John C. Fowler from St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church. It came at a time when other individuals had created other community efforts to arrest growing social problems, Bissell said.

They cited Charles "Punch" Woods and the Community Food Bank, Sister Kathleen Clark and Casa de Los Niños, and the Rev. Dave Innocenti and Brian Flagg of Casa Maria.

In 1987, Packard and Bissell helped to open a men's shelter. They served as the Primavera Foundation's unpaid executive directors for the first 10 years, leaving a legacy.

"They demanded that every individual be treated with respect and dignity, and they built into the bylaws of the agency the stipulation that no less than a third of the paid staff and Board of Directors have experienced homelessness or poverty," wrote Karin Uhlich, former Primavera executive director and Ward 3's city councilwoman.

Another legacy is their vision, which has inspired the legion of volunteers, said longtime board member Andy Silverman.

"They devoted their lives to the organization and homeless people," said Silverman, a professor at the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law.

Supported by about 1,200 volunteers, employing 80 people, and with a $6.5 million annual budget, Primavera provides more than 30 programs for the homeless, jobless veterans and hungry families and individuals, said Primavera Executive Director Peggy Hutchinson.

Primavera's strength, which Bissell and Packard established, is engagement and partnerships with all sectors of the community, Hutchinson said. From churches to schools, from businesses and government to individuals, Primavera has helped make Tucson a better place not just for the homeless but for residents, too, she said.

That is the vision Packard and Bissell created. But challenges persist as public and private assistance is cut and the economy remains stagnant, they said.

More Tucsonans need to serve and give back because poverty doesn't exist in the minds of many people, Bissell said.

"We're injecting a sense of reality," she added.

Packard and Bissell will remain as lifelong Primavera board members and as consultants.

More than that, they will remain as our conscience that the job they began has not ended.

"They demanded that every individual be treated with respect and dignity, and they built into the bylaws of the agency the stipulation that no less than a third of the paid staff and Board of Directors have experienced homelessness or poverty."

Karin Uhlich,

former Primavera executive director and Ward 3's city councilwoman

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at netopjr@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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