Betty Crooker drove her SUV with its Johnson County plates to the Ivanhoe neighborhood in Kansas City’s urban core.
With her was her friend Ginny Beall.
The two middle-aged women got out of the vehicle and started walking up and down the streets, talking to anyone they encountered.
A police car stopped them and asked what they were doing there. The women were in a dangerous area, full of drug houses.
“They were concerned about our safety,” Crooker said. “We told them we were not concerned and were there to find out what people thought the needs were in their area.
The two women stopped and chatted with a fragile-looking elderly woman working in her flower garden.
“Who are you?” Ruthie Brown wanted to know.
“We’re from a Presbyterian church and we’re looking to work in the neighborhood,” Crooker told her.
Brown was thrilled.
“Oh, I had a dream that God would be sending some wonderful people to me,” she said.
Frances Pickens, who lives across the street, saw the scene and hurried over.
“I saw these white people, and I thought they were lost,” Pickens said. “It was a bad area, with a lot of drug dealers, and I was scared for them. I didn’t know that God had sent them.”
That was 13 years ago.
Looking for ways to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village found Ivanhoe: its people, its problems, its potential.
“We (from Village Presbyterian) noticed that everybody had a front porch, and in the old days, they would talk to each other on their porches,” Crooker said. “Nobody in Johnson County has a front porch.
“Then when the drug culture came in, people mostly stayed inside.”
They created the Front Porch Alliance, a partnership of volunteers from the church and those from Ivanhoe, where residents were already working to improve their community but welcomed the extra help.
The needs were so great, “I thought, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’ ” said Carol Cowden, a Village Presbyterian member and one of the effort’s founders. “We had no idea how long we would be there.”
More than a decade later, Village Presbyterian is still there, still strong.
“They are making a tremendous difference,” said the Rev. Henry Pace, pastor of Shalom Baptist Church at 3621 The Paseo.
Crime is down, hundreds of drug houses have been closed and neighbors are less afraid to call the police.
“But one of the greatest things,” Pace said, “is that people were afraid to come out of their houses, and now they know their neighborhood.”
Village Presbyterian Church has a long history as a mission-oriented congregation. Its website states: “It is our church family’s purpose and privilege to reach out beyond our walls with our time, talents, and resources.”
Among its outreach programs are a food pantry that serves nearly 1,000 people a month, a medical partnership with a hospital in the Dominican Republic and working with Habitat for Humanity, said the Rev. Jarrett McLaughlin, associate pastor of mission.
“The calling of the church is to breathe new life into every place where life has eroded, and working as if nothing is beyond repair,” McLaughlin said.
So it wasn’t a reach that the church’s 50th anniversary celebration would be a mission. The pastor at that time, the Rev. Bob Bohl, who had not been there long, called Crooker, Beall and Cowden into his office to get suggestions from the long-time members.
Bohl asked them to form an anniversary group of 20 to 25 members to come up with ideas.
What they agreed on was simple; how to go about it was not.
“We thought instead of patting ourselves on the back for what we had done, looking backwards, that we would see what would be the best project that would carry us forward,” Cowden said.
The group was passionate about serving in the urban core, Crooker said. But doing what?
Crooker was familiar with the Ivanhoe area, roughly 31st to 47th streets and the Paseo to Prospect. About half of the neighborhood’s 3,000 households and 7,000 individuals live in rental property, and turnover is high.
The area was appealing for its need but also for the fact that the church wouldn’t be on its own. There was the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council and a couple of other organizations already at work there, including the Kauffman Foundation, “so we thought we could add to what they were doing,” Cowden said.
The Front Porch Alliance wanted to avoid a misstep that other groups had made.
“One man told us they needed people who decide to stay for the long term and not come in, do a project and leave like a lot of white do-gooders,” Crooker said. “That’s what he called us: white do-gooders.”
Members of Village Presbyterian determined that would not describe them.
This is why they walked the streets. They wanted to find out the residents’ priorities, one block at a time.
“In all these years, I’ve never been afraid,” Crooker said, with Beall conceding that her friend was braver than she was.
Crooker said she has felt “the presence of God” as they walked the streets.
The group set up listening sessions, bringing residents together, including church leaders, to find out the community’s needs and to ask if they wanted their help.
Many encounters made Crooker sad. Like the 12-year old boy who said he couldn’t read. (Village volunteers arranged to get him a tutor. He graduated from high school.)
And like the young man who said, “Ms. Betty, if you can find me a job making $1,000 a day, I’ll stop selling drugs.”
The listening process took about three months, with the church members ending up with a long list of possible projects.
Next came setting up an infrastructure for the effort.
First, they formed a board of directors composed of those from Village Presbyterian, the neighborhood and other volunteers. Next, they raised money: $200,000 in all. Most of that came from Village members. They also got help from Community Christian Church in Kansas City, another mission-minded congregation that joined them in the project.
They formed a nonprofit for the Front Porch Alliance and hired an executive director, Village Presbyterian member Patsy Shawver, to lead the effort. They rented an old four-story brick building at 3210 Michigan in the neighborhood to be the headquarters.
Each year, Village Presbyterian donates $60,000 to the Front Porch Alliance, and a private donor gives $100,000. The money is used for the alliance’s many programs and to pay Shawver and three other staff members, a program director, a youth director and a part-time cook who also drives adults and youth to activities.
The first project was obvious: clean up.
In fear for the Village volunteers’ safety, the church bused in volunteers. They started with removing trash.
“The neighborhood was really a mess, and when we started working, the residents started seeing what was possible,” Shawver said. “They saw they weren’t alone.”
The church volunteers and Ivanhoe neighbors started working together and even shared lunches at the end of some of the work days.
From there, the Front Porch Alliance grew to include many programs for adults and children with the help of 350 to 400 adult and youth volunteers. Many of the volunteers are from Village, but the effort has grown to include those in the neighborhood. And the alliance calls in experts, like lawyers, doctors and financial planners to volunteer for its programs, which include life-skills classes, cooking, home weatherizing, health and arts and crafts, said Calvin Jones, the alliance program director.
Calvin’s wife, Nicki, works part-time for the alliance, teaching popular fitness classes.
Every Saturday a group gathers at the nearby Habitat for Humanity building at 3024 Flora for one of her classes. Scattered about the room, the women are varying ages, many middle-aged, and Nicki shows no mercy.
Music beats in the background.
“Come on ladies. Work it. That’s it. Keep it moving, ladies.”
The women try to keep up with their energetic leader, with serious looks and occasionally wiping sweat from their faces.
“Oh, Lord,” comes one voice.
An hour later, the women hear the magic words, “You made it. Good job.”
Each Thursday morning, Nicki’s class is kick-boxing for seniors.
Nicki has the women start with lifting weights over their heads, then those who can go to heavier weights.
“Squeeze those shoulders. Squeeze those triceps.
“Jab, jab. Work those arms.
“We’re boxers in here. Upper cut. Hook.”
Jackie Medlock wore an ace bandage on one knee and is about to have knee-replacement surgery. She was jabbing hard.
“Jackie, you’re bad,” Nicki said, and the other women laughed, also groaning under their breath.
When the class was over, Medlock used a large white handkerchief and wiped her face, then smiled.
Medlock, like many of the women, not only said they feel healthier but have lost weight since joining one of Nicki’s fitness classes.
When Pauline Robinson, who has lost nearly 70 pounds since January, recently went to her doctor’s office, the staff didn’t recognize her.
Village volunteer Bob Siemens heads the program that makes minor home repairs.
Each Thursday five men, most of them retired, meet with Front Porch leaders to find out where to go. The names come from people who have called in for help.
“Most of our clients are older, living in old houses, Siemens said. “Most of us have been fix-it guys, so we thought we’d try to help.”
They have installed a lot of handrails, security locks, other safety features and even ramps.
Teenagers do the painting.
On one Thursday, Siemens, Jack Wymore and Samm Skare hovered in a small bathroom, looking where they had pulled a sink from the wall. It had been wobbly and in danger of falling. What they discovered was that the wall where the sink had been connected was crumbling.
Wymans chipped away parts of the crumbling wall.
They got a board, Siemens cut it to fit, and the men attached it to the wall. Then they were able to reinstall the sink.
The previous week they installed a motion detector and a porch light at the same house.
“Doing these things is very gratifying,” Siemens said. “This keeps us young and active. Otherwise, we’d just been sitting back getting fat.
“And the people are very appreciative.”
Linda Nimrod, who is retired from housekeeping at a hospital and on disability, is one of the grateful clients.
“The program is magnificent. The men are really nice and do a good job,” Nimrod said.
She said she doesn’t look over their shoulders “because I know they know what they’re doing.”
One of the programs that has most engaged Village Presbyterian volunteers has been PAL, which stands for Partners in Active Learning.
Each volunteer commits to spending one hour a week tutoring two children for half an hour each in reading at Faxon Elementary School, 1320 E. 32nd Terrace.
The school is one of the lowest performing schools in the Kansas City district, said Principal Kathleen Snipes. Of the 310 students, only about 10 percent were reading at grade level last year, she said. Many are one to two years behind.
The volunteers supplement what the students are learning in their classrooms.
Before coming to Faxon three years ago, the program operated at Franklin Elementary for 10 years before the school closed, said the PAL coordinator, Charlotte Davison of Village Presbyterian.
As the church members started participating, they recruited their friends and now 90 volunteers are in the program, Davison said. About half are from Village.
“But we need more volunteers, especially men,” she said.
Snipes said the students look for their PALS every week.
“One little boy wanted a PAL and kept asking me, ‘Am I going to get a PAL?’” she said. “Finally, one volunteer took him on as her third student.”
Snipes said some students are discipline problems in their classrooms, “and when they are sitting with their PAL, they have halos on their heads,” she said with a laugh.
Every day of the week volunteers are reading, usually one-on-one with a student, wherever they can find an empty space. Some huddle against walls in the hallway.
Sadik Hussein, a native of Somalia, was reading a story on the patio, with the help of his PAL, Joni Kimsey, a member of Village Presbyterian.
The sixth-grader, wearing the school uniform of a white shirt and khaki slacks, leaned over the book, and either his finger or Kimsey’s pen moved him along each word.
Sadik read rapidly, occasionally hesitating to try to sound out a word he didn’t know.
“I don’t know this word,” he said, referring to “inaudible.”
“Audible means you can hear something,” Kimsey said. “Inaudible means you can’t hear it.”
“Inhale” was another word he asked about.
Their time almost up, Kimsey asked him to point out all the words he didn’t know.
“You did a super job,” she said, closing the book.
Sadik smiled widely.
“When I learn words I don’t know, I feel happy,” he said.
In the library, third-grader Brittany Lora was with two PALS from Village Presbyterian, Jane Ott and Henry Sewing, who also works with the Front Porch Alliance teen mentoring program.
Brittany studied her worksheets as her braided and barrette-covered hair fell onto her forehead and cheeks.
Sewing encouraged her to sound out the words and write them down.
“Sn-a-ke,” she said, looking up at Sewing.
“That’s right; now write it.”
“You said you want to be a doctor, so have to know how to read,” Ott said.
Back to the worksheet was a place to fill in a missing letter.
“A,” Brittany said, as she wrote the letter.
A few more words followed. “Good, Brittany,” Ott encouraged.
“Thank you,” the little girl said shyly, looking pleased.
Young people are a priority at the Front Porch Alliance. For teens, the alliance offers teen talks, mentoring, financial programs, field trips, life-skills classes, gardening and community service to name just a few of the programs.
With volunteer help, the teens plant and work a garden at a lot on the side of the Front Porch building.
One recent Saturday, it was time to do the final harvest and prepare the lot for the spring.
Under the watchful eyes of Greg Echols, chairman of the garden committee, and Colleen Innis, youth director, a group of young people pulled up wooden stakes and threw them on a pile.
They uprooted dead plants and brush.
And they collected the peppers, cabbage and tomatoes that were left and put them in bags to be distributed to Ivanhoe residents later that day.
They worked hard, looking forward to the lunch that the alliance cook was preparing for them and to going to a reward movie. (The cook also makes breakfast for children and adults who participate in alliance programs.)
This summer the garden yielded squash, zucchini, okra, egg plants and other vegetables.
The young people maintained the garden and developed a marketing strategy to sell their produce.
“This was one way they learned about entrepreneurship,” Echols said.
Other teen service projects have included shoveling snow for elderly residents, raking leaves and cleaning up lots.
David Evans, who brings several young people from a group home, said the Front Porch Alliance teaches them that there are good things they can do with their lives.
One teenager said she loves coming and envisions a better future for her two young children.
Annie Coleman said her son, 16-year-old Marquivous Coleman, has participated in Front Porch activities since he was 8 and never wants to miss one.
“If it wasn’t for Front Porch Alliance, I don’t know what these kids would be doing,” she said. “This gives them something to do instead of them on the street.
“I thank God for them.”
Over the years, Ivanhoe residents have taken on more responsibilities for their neighborhood and more hope for themselves. The church wants the neighborhood to build on the alliance’s success, and signs of that are beginning.
For the first time, the alliance board president has a tie to Ivanhoe, not Village Presbyterian. Doilnella Williams, an African-American who lived in Ivanhoe as a teenager and now lives in Lee’s Summit, became board president in June.
And that first project cleaning up the neighborhood? Ivanhoe residents do that now.
“We see what we do not as a hand out, but a hand up,” Crooker said.
Shawver was almost in tears when she told the story of a woman who had been coming to the financial literacy class for two years. She had been struggling financially.
“Then one day I got a check from her for $140,” she said.
The unwritten message was that she was on steady financial feet.
“Most rewarding has been the relationships and the fact that they trusted us,” Shawver said. “I’m amazed by their tenacity, strength and ability to just keep going.”
Those from the church have been changed too. They’ve built life-long relationships with those in Ivanhoe. They no longer feel the need to gather together in a bus to drive to the area. Now they drive their own cars.
“The people in the neighborhood have the same dreams as those in Johnson County: a safe place for their children, good education, opportunities, and they love their families,” Shawver said.
In the 13 years since Betty Crooker showed up in Frances Pickens’ neighborhood, the two have become family.
Pickens calls Crooker her white mother, and Crooker calls Pickens her black daughter.
They pray with each other at 7 each morning.
Pickens and her husband had been on cocaine at the time and now are clean. Their house had been in need of repairs, and Crooker arranged for funds and volunteers to fix it up.
Pickens’ and her husband’s three sons have graduated from high school and have jobs. One is married with children and says he wants his children to get a good education. And their daughter is in college.
Crooker and “Miss Ruthie,” as Ruth Brown is known, also have built a close relationship.
But Crooker isn’t Miss Ruthie’s daughter.
She’s her angel.
To reach Helen Gray call 816-234-4446 or send email to email@example.com.