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Obituary: Jean Wegener, leader of Serving People in Need, helped thousands find help, homes, hope

Jean Wegener, a Newport Beach died Saturday following an unexpected illness.
Jean Wegener, a Newport Beach resident whose three decades of service with the nonprofit Serving People in Need housed tens of thousands of homeless individuals and families in Orange County, died Saturday following an unexpected illness. (Photo Courtesy Kim Frazier)
(Courtesy of Kim Frazier)

Jean Wegener — a Newport Beach resident whose three decades of service with the nonprofit Serving People in Need helped house tens of thousands of homeless individuals and families in Orange County — died Saturday following an unexpected illness. She was 74.

Those who worked beside Wegener at the Costa Mesa-based SPIN, along with those who knew her from her many involvements in and collaborations with service organizations and agencies countywide, were shocked to learn of the passing of a woman roundly regarded as a tireless worker and a champion for homeless families with children.

“I was devastated,” said Costa Mesa Assistant City Manager Susan Price, who came to work Tuesday to find an email in her inbox announcing the news. “Her fire, it was big. The candle that burned out on Saturday, it’s a big, big loss for many of us.”

Price met Wegener in the mid-'90s, while working on her master’s thesis on family homelessness, and quickly came to know the fiercely loving, bold, outspoken woman as an invaluable resource. The two would work closely on several initiatives related to homelessness in the years that followed.

“Jean has always been there in my circles,” Price continued. “She’s always been at the table, so this is just a big, big loss for the providers, the system of care and the people who got to know and who loved Jean.”

Wegener firmly believed in helping give a people a leg up so they could become self sufficient and not just survive but thrive. Since arriving at SPIN in 1992, she helped grow the organization from a small local volunteer group to one of Orange County’s most respected agencies, which so far this year has served 345 area families.

The group not only passes out food, socks and other necessities but pairs clients with caseworkers and career development workers who help them find housing, clothes, jobs and the skills and tools needed to advance in life.

Born on Aug. 13, 1946, and raised in West Chatham, N.J., Wegener eventually came to Southern California during her college years and graduated from University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

She began her philanthropic service working with the Assistance League of Newport Mesa and, after taking the helm at Serving People in Need, began mentoring other executive directors through the Fieldstone Leadership Network.

Through her work, Wegener intersected with various civic agencies, as SPIN became an important access point for Orange County’s Central Service Planning Area, a geographic region of coordinated healthcare planning.

She worked with Newport Beach officials on a review committee for a permanent supportive housing project and served on a city council ad hoc committee for homelessness. Her community service reach included membership in the Family Solutions Collaborative, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the Costa Mesa Homeless Solutions Network, the Orange County Continuum of Care, Homeless Providers Forum and the Association of California Cities.

“She was just a wonderful advocate for the homeless,” said Kim Frazier, SPIN’s director of marketing, events and volunteer services. “I was always impressed with her — she worked very hard. And she was always there.”

Frazier worked closely with Wegener as part of a tiny, six-member staff and, in that time, came to know a little more about the powerhouse leading the organization. A divorcee raising two boys in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Wegener did all she could to ensure her sons’ needs were met.

“I think that’s the way she was with all the homeless families,” Frazier said Thursday. “She wanted to make sure they were self-sufficient. She was a tough task master — she knew they could do it if she could.”

Kevin Fairman, an assistant principal at Edison High School, announced in late March he was searching for a kidney donor.

Charlie Granville, a SPIN board member for the past 12 years, said Wegener had been in and out of the hospital for the past few months but had recently been transferred to a rehabilitation facility and appeared to be on the mend when things took a sudden turn.

During that time, the organization’s board of directors considered SPIN’s leadership and, on May 24, announced controller and human resources director Stephanie Smolkin would serve as interim executive director. Granville said the board has not determined whether and how it might replace Wegener.

“This has been Jean’s baby practically from day one,” he said. “She is such a hero to me. She’s one of the reasons we’re all here.”

Wegener is survived by son Jeff Wegener, his wife, Nicole, and son Sean; son Brian Wegener, his wife, Emily, and children Kenzie and Keegan Wegener.

A celebration of life will take place Saturday at 1 p.m. at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, 2046 Mar Vista Drive, Newport Beach. A reception will follow at Newport Beach’s Pacific Club, 4110 MacArthur Blvd.

In lieu of flowers, Wegener’s family has asked that donations be made directly to Serving People in Need in her memory at spinoc.org/give.

Daily Pilot society writer B.W. Cook contributed to this report.

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