Ann Carter walked into Miss Henderson’s class at Welborn Elementary School last month and all eyes shot her way.
A fifth-grade boy leaned forward and whispered to her, “I brought my reading log.” A girl chimed in, “Me, too.”
They call her Miss Ann. And just about everywhere the Leawood woman goes inside the Kansas City, Kan. school, students and their teachers smile. Third-graders tell her what books they’ve read and teachers tell her what supplies they could use for their classrooms. Students shyly give her a little wave from their desks or sneak a few words to her when they’re supposed to be quietly standing in line.
She’s not a teacher. Not an aide. Doesn’t make a dime here at the school.
Carter is a volunteer who clocks more hours — whether she is in the school or gathering donations for students and teachers or just thinking about what else she could do — than she would at most full-time paying gigs. All because she feels called to help.
From Fairway and Overland Park to Leawood and Lenexa, Johnson Countians generously donate to charities and organizations. Some with their money, many with their time.
And then there are people, like Carter, who take the whole giving back thing up a notch.
People in the midst of raising children or working long hours at paying jobs donate dozens of hours each week to helping people and agencies throughout the metro area wherever they can make the most impact.
They become regular fixtures at local charities. Or they identify an unmet need in the community — like providing diapers for needy families or beds for children without them — and create a nonprofit or program on their own.
Many of these uber volunteers find that once they start volunteering, they can’t stop. They end up putting in many more hours than they planned.
“There’s a driving desire for many people out there to give back,” said Jeanna Repass, director of Kansas City Missions for Leawood’s Church of the Resurrection, where Carter belongs and started her volunteering. “People who live in Johnson County understand their sense of privilege for living in this area. They feel blessed. And they want to help others.”
Here’s what keeps Carter going: Watching children go from not reading much at home to making sure they hand in weekly logs that show they’ve read 100 full minutes. She has supervised the reading incentive program at Welborn for the past two years and she helps out with other activities like field day and rewards after testing.
All the while getting to spend time with the 470-plus students at Welborn.
“I’m like a rock star, which is really cool,” Carter said. “I hate to say that, but I am. I’m the party lady. … I don’t even know that I would enjoy this as much if I got paid for it.”
- * *
When Liz Sutherlin of Overland Park retired as a pharmaceutical sales executive, she knew she had time to give. Maybe about 20 hours a week, she thought. Her sister-in-law Pam Sutherlin also wanted to give back.
After taking over Happy Bottoms, a nonprofit diaper bank created in November 2009 by a former Lee’s Summit woman, Sutherlin realized how many babies were going without enough diapers because their parents couldn’t afford them. She and Pam soon discovered how much time it would take to not only educate the community about the need but generate and organize donations and set up pickup times for agencies.
Instead of trying to limit their hours, she and Pam found themselves each giving at least 40 hours a week most weeks. Another woman, Linda Cavanaugh of Leawood, was also volunteering hours.
“When you look at the task, look at how many kids there are, it’s hard not to work all the hours you have available on this,” Liz Sutherlin said. “When you realize all the processes that need to happen to get a diaper on a child, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ll just work a few more hours tonight, a few more emails.’ It just keeps you going.”
She and others who volunteer so much of their time will tell you they’re the ones who get more out of volunteering than the person they’re helping.
“I feel so blessed that I’m able to do this,” said Monica Starr of Fairway, who created Sleepyhead Beds in fall 2010 to provide children who don’t have beds with one of their own. “I can’t imagine one person who gives selflessly of time and doesn’t get a huge reward.
“It’s way better and lasts a whole lot longer than purchasing materialistic things,” Starr said.
Seven months after creating Giving the Basics, a new nonprofit that provides food pantries and social service agencies with items like shampoo, toilet paper, razors and toothbrushes, Teresa Hamilton and Michele Orpin have collected a slew of thank-you notes. The sisters-in-law formed the nonprofit when they realized families on government assistance often can’t afford the “human dignity” products they need. And pantries can’t afford to keep them stocked.
The two tear up when they read the notes, knowing that the nonprofit is helping.
“The words I say can in no ways begin to show how much I appreciate all of the toiletries and soap you give today, may the blessing of the Lord continue to stay in your heart,” wrote one person who received donations from Giving the Basics.
Another said: “Thank you for the hygiene materials. You help me more than my own family does. God bless you and your family.”
For Hamilton, she’s just thankful that she saw the need at a point in her life when she could help. The plumbing business she and her husband own was going well, and their 12 children were getting older, some of them already out of the house. Orpin also was at point where she could take it on.
“My favorite thing in the world is to watch someone else succeed — it makes me smile,” Hamilton said. “Watching someone go from stuck to unstuck, it’s the best.”
- * *
As Carter collected the reading logs in Miss Henderson’s class, a boy in back called out.
“Miss Ann, we’re going to win today!” he said loudly, just before he did a little victory dance.
He knows the winning class, the one with the highest percentage of logs turned in, gets doughnuts, ones that Miss Ann and other ladies from Church of the Resurrection will fry up special for them.
But his class won’t know for three hours if they won.
“We make them wait,” Carter said, smiling.
She gathered a fistful of logs and made it back to the teachers’ lounge, where other volunteers from the church were waiting. This is what they do. Every Friday a group of volunteers — around the school they are known as the “church ladies” — come in and help Carter go through the logs and tally the percentage for each class.
The two classes (kindergarten through second grade, and third through fifth) with the highest percentage get to go to a party at the end of the day.
“And if there’s a tie, heaven help me,” Carter said, smiling. Of course, she knows that ties mean more kids are reading and handing in their logs.
This Welborn mission sprang from a Church of the Resurrection project called Bless the School. Every year, church members take on a school and in the summer help with a major project, such as landscaping or fixing up or installing a playground or helping renovate the inside. The goal is to continue to partner with the school and the community to make a difference for young people and their families in some of the area’s poorest neighborhoods.
Two years ago, Carter and other volunteers spent several days painting the inside of Welborn Elementary. Carter remembers being personally touched when teachers offered to help paint when their summer school classes were done for the day.
So when the church was looking for a school liaison for Welborn, Carter jumped at it.
When the principal at the time wanted a reading program, that’s what she did. She provided the logs, collected them at the end of the week, sorted through them with volunteers. On top of that, she knew she’d need to provide an incentive, something the students could take home each Friday in return for reading. The goody bag was born.
“A pencil and an eraser isn’t going to cut it,” Carter said. “They’re giving me 15 minutes a night. I want to make sure they think it’s worth it.”
So every week, each of the 200 to 250 goody bags hold treats such as candy, snacks and little trinkets, stickers and maybe a stuffed animal. Each child also gets an age-appropriate book. That came after a child once asked Carter a question about the reading program.
“Miss Ann, what are we supposed to read?” she asked.
She told the girl just to grab a magazine or book.
“We don’t have those things at our house,” the girl told Carter.
The church has a budget for some of what Carter provides; other items come from things that church members donate or donations from stores, such as Half Price Books. Or things Carter hears about or solicits.
“I spend a lot of time gleaning,” she said. “When I’m going to bed at night, I’m posting on Facebook, ‘I need stuffed animals.’ ”
She added other jobs for herself along the way: organizing special parties or rewards for perfect attendance, fulfilling wish lists of teachers who need everything from paper and pens to classroom decorations and furniture. She’s helped a teacher throw a party for students who put extra effort in during annual testing time. She held a book fair at the end of the school year and set up a toy store where students could pick something out.
“She kind of saves the day for me in a lot of ways,” said Welborn Principal Jennifer Malone. “I don’t think our school would be as successful without her, without the church. It’s a blessing for me and my students and my school.”
In the fall of 2011, 44 percent of the students were proficient in reading. By this past spring, that rose to 60 percent.
“That and a hug is a paycheck,” Carter said.
In order to get all of her volunteering done — Carter also helps at an organization on the Missouri side each Monday and has other smaller volunteer obligations throughout the week — she knows things at home go undone. Furniture may remain dusty. Floors not mopped regularly. But she’s cool with it.
“I just feel called to do this,” Carter said. “When I go to heaven, I don’t think he’s going to say you had the cleanest floors in Leawood. I think he’s going to say, ‘Well done.’ ”
- * *
For Monica Starr, it wasn’t a calling. Nothing or no one spoke to her.
She saw a need. Simple as that.
While volunteering for another organization, she discovered that some children throughout the metro area didn’t have beds. Their parents couldn’t afford them, or in some cases mom had just fled an abusive relationship. Maybe the family came from out of town looking for work and couldn’t find anything.
Whatever the reason, thousands of kids were sleeping on the floor every night.
Starr could also see the solution. People throw away unwanted beds, further clogging landfills. All she had to do was match the kids needing beds with the families who no longer wanted theirs.
“I knew we could do it,” she said. “I thought it would take up about 20 hours a week.”
This now makes her laugh — her husband, Bart, too.
She works so many hours most weeks she’s stopped counting. Her small nonprofit has grown so much in less than two years that it now employs two people and relies on a slew of volunteers. Starr herself has learned to write grants and run a board of directors.
The mom of two has moved her makeshift office from her Fairway dining room table to a corner of her living room. (“At least I have a desk now,” she said, laughing.)
When she first started out, she hoped to collect and provide 30 beds a month to kids who need them. Sleepyhead Beds now delivers more than that nearly every week. Last year alone, the nonprofit provided 1,900 beds and bedding for kids across the area.
Plus, as Starr points out, that’s about 1,200 beds that likely would have ended up in the landfill.
“Nobody has to pay me or tell me to go to work today,” she said. “I’m excited to go to work. I feel so passionate about what I’m doing. I want to give these kids a chance, a teeny tiny bit of comfort.”
And instead of a paycheck, she says, she may get a hug from a mom or see a kid’s face light up when she helps carry his new bed into his room.
Yes, to keep the nonprofit thriving and able to stay around for years to come, she recognizes she sacrifices time with her family. Like other volunteers, she acknowledges she is able to give back because of the support she gets from her husband and two children.
As Starr climbs in and out of a truck on delivery days, she sees the bigger picture. She sees a day, once she and others have established this nonprofit and there’s no list of kids waiting for a bed, when she can cut back on her hours. Work that 20 hours a week she thought she was getting herself into.
In the meantime, she knows her own kids are watching — and learning. Maybe not the 2-year-old, yet. But definitely, her 4-year-old daughter is.
“The only way you can teach people to care about other people is to show them,” Starr said. “You can’t just tell them.”
Her daughter recently received $5 in the mail from a relative. She’d never gotten money like that before. And in a family where debit cards are the main commodity, some of the only times she sees cash are when Mom or Dad hands money out the car window to a homeless person or someone needing food.
“I’m going to go put it in my piggy bank,” the little girl told her mom, “to help someone who is hungry.”
Starr loves that her daughter knows to help people.
“In our family, that’s what we do.”
- * *
Julie Carmichael’s two children were teenagers when she decided to start volunteering at Operation Breakthrough. The Lenexa mom wanted them to see what other people face.
“I wanted to educate them about a completely different ZIP code,” Carmichael said.
They went that first time and hung out with the kids in the daycare and spent time with the people there. On the way home, her son, a high school student at the time, had a question.
“Did you bring us down here so we would be grateful for what we have?” he asked her.
The family continued to go to the agency and help. Eventually, they started a science club for adolescent girls once a week. Carmichael’s daughter and some of her friends would go and help with the club.
At one point, Sister Berta Sailer, one of the founders of Operation Breakthrough, told Carmichael they needed to do something for moms who use the agency. Some sort of mentoring group, where they build relationships with successful women.
For four years now, Carmichael has been supervising Encompass. She and a close friend started mentoring one mom. The group has grown to include 30 mentors, women from Hallmark and Sprint and other companies, who work with 15 moms from Operation Breakthrough.
The goal is for two friends to volunteer and work with one mom. Then the mom, who often has struggled in relationships and feels isolated, can learn what a healthy relationship is. She’ll have support.
The mentors and moms meet for dinner two Tuesdays a month. Sometimes, Carmichael organizes for speakers to come in, such as experts to explain household budgets or how to cut utility costs. Other times the women just talk and hang out and build those relationships.
About a year ago, she wondered if the group was making an impact. If it was worth continuing. Around that same time, moms at Operation Breakthrough were asked to write down what they were thankful for on a green paper leaf and put it on a tree hanging on the wall.
When Carmichael asked the mom she’s been mentoring whether Encompass was helpful, she replied:
“Julie, you’re a leaf on my tree.”
Carmichael will soon start recruiting again, bringing in more mentors to add more moms to the group. She learned it was about making a difference one person at a time.
“If you put in your mind that ‘I’m going to eradicate poverty,’ that will be a stumbling block,” Carmichael said. “It will paralyze you.”
Instead, she said, try to mentor one kid, one parent, one person.
“Put the idea in your head that you can make a difference for that one person, then you will. If you start small.”
For her, she says, donating time to others has helped her be a better mom, better wife.
“Like my son said, ‘You become so grateful for what you have.’ ”
- * *
Carter was going on five hours at the school in Kansas City, Kan. She has collected all the reading logs and passed out goody bags to each student who read 100 minutes — that’s 230 students. She has walked up and down halls, across parking lots and up and down some stairs.
And now, she’s in the school cafeteria with the three women who help her pull off these parties every Friday. A second-grade class is here. So is Miss Henderson’s fifth-grade class and another class of fifth-graders. Today there was a tie.
The next hour is the fun part. It’s also exhausting. Carter has to raise her voice a time or two over the din of excited students shooting their hands into the air signaling that yes, yes, they do want seconds on doughnuts.
“You guys want to hear about estimation?” Carter said, trying to make her voice louder than the chatter going on at the tables. “…I need quiet.”
Carter points to two class jars of candy and gets the kids to play a game of estimation.
As the end of the school day neared, several students had downed their second doughtnut, and the jars of candy were handed out to the winners. The party’s over. And the kids know that the reading logs start all over again.
“What’s next week’s party?” Carter asked.
“Turko” they yell out in unison for the game of bingo that Carter ended up renaming to coincide with Thanksgiving. The name Turko stuck.
“I like it because everybody wins something,” one girl yelled out.
Carter smiles. She likes it, too.
But that goes for everything she does here at Welborn.
To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.