By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Since 1879, the year Father Bernard Donnelly founded St. Joseph’s Orphanage for Girls near the modern intersection of Southwest Trafficway and 31st Street and the seed for Catholic Charities was planted, the institution has served the poor and vulnerable by connecting with them where they are in life.
In 1880, St. John’s Orphanage was founded in St. Joseph. Since then, Catholic charitable organizations in both dioceses went through several incarnations; in 1958 the corporate name was changed to Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Inc., reflecting the 1956 merger of the dioceses. Both offices continue to work together, and May 14 epitomized their solidarity.
Staff from Kansas City and St. Joseph teamed up to walk a mile in the shoes of the poor, or rather to ride city buses as many folks without other means of transportation rely on to get to school, work, appointments and child care. Jarrod Sanderson, Catholic Charities Executive Director of Housing Development, said the learning experience had been in the works for some time.
“We wanted our staff to experience a listening ear and heart, to be more wholly engaged. To really do so,” he said, “you have to reach people where they come from. We can’t know exactly what their poverty is like, so we need to get a sense of their poverty so we can recognize it.”
He added that having a sense of how the bus system works would help Catholic Charities staff assist their clients with bus passes and trip planning information.
Did you know that in Greater Kansas City, buses are boarded, on average, 54,000 times each day? Many riders board several buses in a day, taking children to day care or school, going to work, running errands, getting to job interviews or doctor’s appointments. However many buses they board daily, the time spent riding the bus eats into the productivity of workers, Sanderson said.
Team members were allotted three bus passes and were to arrange for transfers if needed when boarding a bus. Each team would ride buses to social service, community center or health care agencies used by Catholic Charities clients. A KCATA staff person, either middle or upper management, accompanied each team. Some of them had never actually experienced bus riding and the Transportation Authority wanted them to experience it.
Tony Bragulla, KCATA Infrastructure Maintenance Supervisor, joined Sanderson’s team, and spoke with several riders on the bus. He was interested in feedback from riders and understanding the system from a rider’s perspective: the massive number of riders vs the Transportation Authority’s resources and how the system could be improved.
Sanderson’s team visited the Mary L. Kelly Community Center, 2803 E. 51st Street and the Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center, 825 Euclid Avenue, both in Kansas City.
Sanderson’s team walked from Catholic Charities at 9th and Main to the KCATA hub at 11th and Main then boarded the bus that would take them to the Mary Kelly Center, a good 45-minute ride. The bus was nearly empty, as the rush hour was over.
Spitting rain and a stiff breeze made walking from a bus stop a quarter mile from the Community Center not much fun. But carrying children or groceries or laundry is quite different from juggling a camera and notebook.
The Mary Kelly Center was quiet that morning —kids were in school, moms at work or at home. But it was easy to see that with a nutrition center, a gym, educational opportunities and other services, by late afternoon, the place would be packed with people. You see, residents of the Blue Hills and neighboring areas volunteer a certain number of hours per month assisting with the center’s operation and programming and in return are allowed to enjoy all of the center’s amenities free.
After a short walk through the community center, Sanderson and team trekked back to the bus stop. Fortunately the rain had let up.
The next bus took the team to the Samuel L. Rodgers Health Center, a longer trip this time. The health center was busy, with men, women and children waiting to see doctors, dentists, behavioral specialists or to fill prescriptions. Majeed Babaei, Patient Care Coordinator and Health Insurance Marketplace Counselor gave the team a 15-minute whirlwind tour.
The trip back to Catholic Charities allowed the team a bit more interaction with riders. The bus was almost full. Some passengers ignored the team. A couple were asleep, which must have been difficult due to the stop and start nature of a bus. Others chatted with seatmates in several different languages, but a couple of riders shared their stories.
One rider said that he rode metro buses to and from work at an auto parts store in Kansas City, Kan., a 90 minute ride each way from his home. His truck was broken down, and although the rider was sure he could make the repairs, he could only purchase the parts on pay day. He hoped that it wouldn’t be long before he’d have all the parts and could work on his truck. He had been on the job about three months; looking for a job closer to home was not an option since he has full custody of a two-year old, and the regular paycheck is a necessity. He took his child to a caregiver’s each morning then continued his journey to work and the morning clock-in. The evening’s trip was the same, just in reverse.
The conversation ended when the rider got off the bus and transferred to another.
Sanderson described the day’s experience as “organic, we got out there to see what happens. Our service is a give and take; we walk the journey with our clients, but not to take ownership of the problem or the solution. We want to help them reach a place where they can fix the problem(s) themselves. Everybody’s got a story; no matter the person’s status, they’re dealing with something. Catholic Charities staff should always have an unconditional, positive regard for everyone, keep the doors open.”
He said the staff really enjoyed the experience. “It put into context what they already knew” about the bus system and poverty in Kansas City.
So what’s next for Catholic Charities? Sanderson said a community cleanup is in the works, to help residents of blighted areas organize and spruce up their neighborhoods.
To learn more about Catholic Charities, visit www.catholiccharities-kcsj.org