Volunteers at the Johnson County Christmas Bureau don’t need numbers to show them the startling truth about suburban poverty. They see the proof in person.
“Most people don’t realize poverty is in our own backyards,” said Barb McNeile, the executive director of the Christmas Bureau. “One in five Johnson County families is considered to be low income, which is extremely shocking. People still have the notion that Johnson County is a very affluent county.”
McNeile’s statistics derive from the recently released poverty data distributed by the United Community Services of Johnson County. The organization’s numbers also show that one in 15 Johnson County residents has income below the property level.
Last year, the Christmas Bureau served more than 12,700 residents. This year, it will be more.
As the bureau’s volunteers haul thousands of donated items into their new temporary space, an abandoned sports store at the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe, they know it’s still not enough to help everyone in need.
The bureau turned away 400 families last year, because the shop’s capacity was filled. This year, that number could be greater.
Individuals representing the families who make the list schedule appointments to shop at the store from Friday to Dec. 8. They browse through new clothes, kitchen appliances, toys, canned goods and household necessities, finding items they desperately need this winter, or gifts they can’t afford for their children. Even everyday items, such as toothpaste or shampoo, are in high demand.
A volunteer is assigned to each person, to guide them every step of the way.
For Sharon Rhodes, a volunteer from Overland Park, helping the clients push their carts through each aisle hits close to home.
When she was a single mom struggling through a divorce in the early 1990s, she was once a client of the Christmas Bureau.
“My biggest scare was that I wouldn’t be able to give my young children a Christmas,” she said. “When I was contacted by the Johnson County Christmas Bureau, it was like an angel came down and told me everything was going to be OK. I was so grateful to be able to give my kids a Christmas we’ll never forget.”
Now, as a volunteer, she knows exactly what each resident is going through, when they carefully handpick items they need, with tears in their eyes.
“I give them a smile and comfort, and let them know that it really does get better,” Rhodes said. “I just want to pay it forward.”
Since the country’s economic downturn four years ago, there has been an increase in the number of clientele using the shop. Many of the residents using the service never dreamed they would be.
“The whole face of who we see coming into the shop has changed over the years,” McNeile said. “There are so many stories about people who’ve lost their jobs. These aren’t people sitting at home waiting for a check to come in the mail — they’re hard workers who just need a little assistance right now.”
Rhodes said she’s still amazed to discover that most people in Johnson County truly have no idea about the amount of poverty surrounding them.
Her goal is to open people’s eyes, not just about the change in the county’s socioeconomic climate, but also about how much the Christmas Bureau needs help.
After all, right now, the shop still needs more canned goods and gently worn coats.
Year round, Rhodes creates awareness by spreading the word, encouraging local businesses to house a donation barrel, and putting the Christmas Bureau in touch with other local organizations.
But her number one goal is to find the Johnson County Christmas Bureau a permanent location.
Since the bureau’s founding more than 40 years ago, it has never owned a space to set up shop. Instead, it relies on donated temporary locations around the county.
“There are so many empty buildings in Johnson County that would be perfect,” Rhodes said. “Having a permanent location could help the Christmas Bureau help many more people and allow it to grow. That’s my Christmas wish.”