Chris Penn
Chris Penn

9-year Grand Circle Associate, Traveler Support Air Agent

Watch the Video of the Grand Circle Foundation's Up & Out Move

ChrisPennMoving to a new home under any circumstance is an expensive proposition, but for families who have been living in a homeless shelter, the costs associated with a move can easily tip them into debt just as they're trying to make a fresh start. Chris Penn, co-founder of an innovative volunteer program called Up & Out, understands this. Since 2006, Chris has organized twenty-five Up & Out moves, helping as many families to transition from the Boston Family Shelter to their new homes, debt- and stress-free.

Miniature Extreme Home Makeover

Chris Penn SantaChris works in Grand Circle Travel's incoming Call Center, where his co-workers describe him as a "teddy bear," "a real live Santa Claus," and "the sweetest man you'd ever want to meet." While these affectionate phrases certainly describe the generosity of spirit that's so obvious to the people Chris helps through Up & Out, they belie another equally striking quality of Chris's—his seriousness. Ask him how Up & Out works, for instance, and he will describe the various logistical phases of a typical move with solemn attention to detail and steadfast modesty, emphasizing the work of the volunteer crews, and not his own crucial role in the process.

Every Up & Out event, says Chris, follows a tried and true plan of attack: the volunteers (which usually consists of about 12 people: Grand Circle associates and their friends and family) are divided into four groups. The cleaning crew goes into the new home and scrubs down everything from the floors to the toilets to the windows. One of two moving crews transfers Arrangingthe family's belongings from the shelter to the new home, while a second moving crew picks up the family's "wish-list items" from the basement of Grand Circle's office building, where they've been collected and stored during the preceding weeks, and delivers them to the new home. Finally, a prep crew gets the apartment ready by arranging and assembling furniture, making small repairs, stocking cupboards, and even baking a fresh batch of cookies. During this entire operation, the family waits at the shelter, while Chris and his volunteers create what he calls a "miniature extreme home makeover." Finally, when the beds are made, the towels folded and put away, the curtains hung, and the cookies cooled, the family is driven from the shelter to their new home, where they find Chris waiting outside, ready to welcome them.

"If there's a baby," he explains, "it's my job to carry the child inside." Only at this point in his description of an Up & Out move does a smile flicker across his face.

Finding Time to Give Back

RTBChris, who started working at Grand Circle Travel in 2001, recalls that at one point during the hiring process, he listened to Maury Peterson, Vice President of Grand Circle Foundation, give a presentation in which she described the many volunteer opportunities available to employees, as well the company's philosophy of "giving back." Chris was excited about these aspects of the company's culture, and anxious to participate, but in the months that followed, he found his new job kept him so busy he couldn't imagine how he'd find the time to "give back."

Little by little, however, he started participating in some of the annual projects Grand Circle has been involved with for years, such as the Rebuilding Together Boston event in late April, and the annual Mother's Day Lunch, sponsored by Grand Circle Travel in association with Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly. In 2003, Chris signed up to play Santa Claus at the annual Christmas party that Grand Circle has thrown for many years at the Boston Family Shelter (BFS). At that event, Chris recalls, the then-manager of Grand Circle Foundation asked if any associates would be willing to get more involved with the shelter. Chris was among those who said "yes"—the question was, how? What sort of help did the shelter's residents really need?

Chris Penn and directorA couple of weeks later, Chris met with the program director of BFS, Amanda Brown. Amanda explained that when people living in the shelter manage to procure housing, they face an immediate challenge of financing the move to their new home. Helping out with those moves was exactly the project Chris had been looking for. They called it "Up & Out."

When Alan and Harriet Lewis agreed to donate part of the proceeds of Grand Circle's holiday raffle toward the program (each family's move costs between $2,000 and $2,500), things really got off the ground. Pretty soon, Chris discovered that the problem of finding time to volunteer had suddenly vanished. In fact, he describes the work he does with Up & Out as "addictive," which may partly account for its success.

Pink and Brown

Childs bedroomThe recipient of Up & Out's twenty-fifth move this past March was a young mother named Andrea and her three-month-old daughter, Jeiralisse. Several weeks before the move, Chris sat down with Andrea to draw up her "wish list"—a list of items she and her daughter needed for their new home. Chris posted the list in the elevator at Grand Circle, and over the next few weeks, associates brought in contributions of lightly used furniture, clothing, and toys, as well as newly bought items, such as canned food, kitchen utensils, children's books, and bathroom fixtures. Anyone who read the wish list carefully would have noticed a curious request: Andrea wanted her daughter's room to be decorated in a specific color scheme: brown and pink.

"And that's exactly what she got!" says Lauren Fabrizio, who was on Up & Out's cleaning crew that day. "Little brown and pink argyles, pink and brown curtains. Brown plaids with pink chenille trim."

Lauren is one of Chris's co-workers who can't sing his praises enough. "He just helps so many people," she says. "He's a rich man in his heart."

Seriously Inspiring

Chris's work with Up & Out earned him the Foundation's Excellence in Community Service Award in 2007. But what was even more rewarding, he says, is when the homeless advocacy group called Heading Home established their own Up & Out service, based on the program he helped develop. Now Chris hopes to spread the idea even further by drawing up a blueprint of what Up & Out does, and bringing it around to local businesses to seek out potential sponsors who could fund more moves. Furniture stores such as Bob's and Jordan's seem like a natural fit, he explains. And who knows, maybe he could get some big corporations interested in the work. Maybe Nike could help out, he says, looking very serious.