By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — 7 a.m., July 17. As the Stars and Stripes rose up the flag pole outside the Clymer Center, more than 60 young men clad in white t-shirts and khakis, stood at attention with a group of adults. The young men were members of the Urban Ranger Corps, a neighborhood-based program that offers at-risk teenagers an opportunity to learn a skill, earn a paycheck, help their neighbors, their neighborhoods and themselves.
The adults, members of the Urban Rangers Board of Directors, the City Councilwoman for the district, members of the Leawood Rotary Club, the president of Avila University and its head football coach, joined the teens for an Open House at the Rangers new headquarters, Clymer Center east of downtown Kansas City.
The Urban Rangers was the brainchild of Father John Wandless who, when he was pastor of St. Louis Parish, watched young men in the neighborhood spiral down into hopelessness, vandalism and violence.
Having grown up in poverty in Pittsburgh, Pa., and seen the effects it had on people, especially young men, Father Wandless wanted to do something to try and “stop the deterioration.” As a young man, he served in the U.S. Navy and later worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s federal War on Poverty program established in 1964. At that time, U.S. Census statistics showed that about 25 percent of the population, or 35 million Americans, lived in poverty.
In the 1980s John Wandless, by then married with a son and a daughter, formed a successful high tech computer software firm that focused on health care services. His wife died in 1991, and in 1993, he answered the call to the priesthood, and was ordained by then-Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Raymond J. Boland in 1997. Nearly 40 years after working to fight poverty, Father Wandless was assigned as pastor of St. Louis Parish. The embers of the desire to help neighborhood families, especially the young people, flared into flame again.
In 2003 he read “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” a novel by Yale University Law Professor Stephen L. Carter. One line haunted him: “There are plenty of black kids who look out at the world and see a place that has no room for them.” That sentence struck a chord within him, Father Wandless said, and seemed to fit the neighborhood. Local statistics compiled in 2000 indicated that in the community in the one square mile around the church were found the highest concentration of welfare recipients and the largest group of school-age children in Jackson County. The neighborhood ranked high for incidences of truancy, gangs and crime in Kansas City. According to the census, close to 50 percent of the homes in the neighborhood were rental properties, many of them Section 8 Public Housing with absentee landlords, which contributed to the area’s decline. Another factor was the lack of solidarity between the older and younger residents, Father Wandless added.
Using his military and business experiences, he started the first crew of the Urban Rangers Corps in 2004, funded in the beginning from his personal savings. He said the name came from several sources. The young men, high school sophomores through seniors, all live in the urban core and care for the environment around them — the yards and homes of their neighborhoods — like forest or park rangers.
Twelve young men made up the first Urban Rangers crew. Today, in the midst of the Corps’ seventh summer, 58 Urban Rangers have spent seven weeks cleaning up trash and old tire strewn lots, shoring up or tearing down sagging porches and rebuilding them as decks or patios; patching and caulking holes in exterior walls and painting houses, building fences, mowing yards and trimming or cutting down overgrown trees and bushes. The 32-hour work week and 4-hour weekly workshop sessions give the teens work experience and training and earn them a bi-weekly check that pays them up to $2,400 for the summer, for many of the young men, their first paycheck. Fund raising helps purchase equipment and tools and pays their wages.
The Urban Ranger program is a year-round program divided into two phases. The “Summer Phase” began in June with a non-paid Orientation Week followed by the two month work session. The day begins at 7 a.m., with a flag ceremony and the Pledge of Allegiance; followed by 45 minutes of calisthenics, part of the program’s health promotion. The young men have to be on time and dressed appropriately in the Urban Ranger Corps uniform— a t-shirt imprinted with the Corps’ logo, khaki pants or shorts. The t-shirts are white or khaki-colored and visored caps match their shirts. They follow military-style discipline and courtesy, to help develop positive work attitudes. Friday mornings are spent in workshops on topics including money management, conflict resolution, workplace safety and health promotion.
July 27 is graduation day for the 58 rangers who completed this summer session. In a few weeks, the young men will return to classes for their next year of high school. The program’s results are positive: more than 95 percent of the participants return to their high schools in the fall. Seniors graduate each spring, embarking on promising career pathways (employment, college, technical training or military service). Less than 5 percent have any contact with family court, gangs or law enforcement.
The “School Year” phase includes partnering with teachers and counselors, and inducing rangers to make grade point average goals through summer phase eligibility. Year-round mentoring, career management and coaching from businessmen and professionals help assist rangers develop their own Individualized Career Plans, giving them hope for a brighter future. Mentors and Ranger Corps leaders make regular contact with the teens and offer service opportunities during the school year.
This fall the Leawood Rotary Club plans to launch a pilot program at Hogan Prep High School in Kansas City through a partnership with the Rotarians and the Urban Rangers, with an eye toward college and possible enrollment at Avila University down the road. Rotarian and Urban Ranger board member Jake Schloegel told The Key that Father Wandless had attended several Rotary club meetings and had expressed interest in the club’s 7-year old Project REACH (Rotarians Encouraging Academic and Collegiate Health), a college prep mentoring program at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan. A year –round mentoring program would help the teens in the Ranger program stay interested in keeping their grades up and working toward graduation and post-high school success, whether college, vo-tech training or a job. Three Urban Rangers who attend Hogan Prep will be juniors this fall, a good time for a college prep mentoring program to begin.
Schloegel had started his company, Schloegel Design Remodel, in 1980 and was sure he could use his 30+ years of experience to help the Urban Rangers in their work improving homes of low income families in their neighborhoods. He joined the Urban Ranger board three years ago and has come to appreciate the teenagers and understand the gravity of what they face daily as young people living in the inner city. “Unfortunately, the media paints a picture … that is not entirely correct,” he said. “There are a lot of kids in the inner city, who are exactly that: ‘kids,’ trying to get by, learn what they can, make life work, and have some hope for the future.”
He has been involved in Project REACH at Ward for a number of years, and said that a similar program at Hogan Prep is “kind of a natural fit,” as Hogan is a college prep high school that expects its students to go to college, “which is our goal with Project REACH.”
Fellow Rotarian and Avila University president Ron Slepitza is equally excited about the launch of the Urban Ranger Project REACH program at Hogan Prep. “The program’s structured curriculum will be based on the Urban Ranger model,” he said, “offering guidance, real work (earning money and learning skills), discipline and male role models. Future goals will be developed and the program will provide a creative path of opportunity.” Adult mentors will be in regular monthly contact with the students, sharing academic, business and professional skills and tools for success. It is also hoped that the Rangers will be able to recruit from within the school setting, as other young men see the example set by the Urban Rangers.
Avila is also interested in the Urban Ranger program; in fact three of the university’s football players are serving as Ranger team leaders this summer. “Working with the Rangers is a great experience for our students,” Slepitza said, “especially our male athletes. Many of them were like the kids in the Urban Rangers, so they can relate to the teenagers. They will be working with the kids on formation of habits and behaviors to help them hit the ground running when it’s time for college.” And scholarships and other financial aid would be available so that the dreams of the Rangers can turn into reality.
Since their first efforts on 60th Street between College and Indiana streets, the Urban Rangers Corps have cleaned up, repaired and fixed up a number of homes in the neighborhood, kept several vacant lots and pocket parks cleaned up, and helped homeowners feel proud of their neighborhood again, one house at a time.