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In KC group home, bright youngsters thrive in new surroundings

Updated: 2013-07-06T04:09:18Z

By DONALD BRADLEY

The Kansas City Star

In an upstairs bedroom, the mother worked on one son’s hair while her older boy fiddled with his tie.

Downstairs in the large house in south Kansas City, people gathered for a celebration. Food covered the large dining table. A brightly decorated cake waited on the counter.

“Just about done,” said Sophia, the mom, to her son. Ja, the 11-year-old boy, sat eyes to the bedroom floor while mom tinkered with his braids.

“There,” she said finally. Then she looked to Sevin, 13, who stood in front of the mirror in creased pants and a crisp shirt. She’d done his hair first.

“Oh, you look good,” she told him proudly.

Sophia doesn’t live in the house. Just her boys. And none of them know about the fight 10 years ago that led to any of them being there. The house was built by Boys Hope Girls Hope, an organization that plucks academically gifted youngsters, like Ja and Sevin, from troubled, mostly inner-city neighborhoods and puts them in a place where they have every opportunity to excel in good schools.

Neighbor turned on neighbor when the project was announced in 2002.

Opponents worried back then about crime and harm to property values. On the other side, supporters and St. Thomas More School and Rockhurst High School, the two southland schools the boys would attend, advocated for providing opportunities for boys stuck in bad situations, such as underperforming schools and violent neighborhoods.

In a way, both sides lost. But the boys won. The home got built, albeit in a different location — one remote from the usual objections of nearby neighbors.

So, now 10 years later, none of the fears have come to be, and the home has put about 25 boys, eight or nine at a time, through school and sent some on to college.

“It’s working out very, very well,” a smiling Sevin said before last week’s dinner.

The celebration was for him and another boy, J’Ron, who will both be eighth-graders at St. Thomas More in the fall. The two had just completed a summer enrichment session at Rockhurst.

Sophia had brought along one of Sevin’s friends from the old neighborhood. The boy said he was happy for Sevin.

“He’s very smart, we all knew that,” the friend said. “This is a better place for him.”

No argument from Sophia. Look around, she said. Beautiful home, great schools, safe streets — seeds of a promising future.

“If it were just me, I couldn’t provide this to them,” Sophia, 37, said of her sons. “But this is going to happen for them.

“At first, I worried about them being away from me. Now I know it’s just hard on me.”

In 2002, when the project was announced, the group home was planned for an existing house in the 11800 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in Verona Hills.

But some residents of the subdivision argued the project didn’t adhere to city code and didn’t fit a neighborhood of single-family residences. They also accused Rockhurst of causing a rift by pushing the group home into their neighborhood, which had been home to many Rockhurst students over the years.

The Rev. Tom Pesci, then the president of Rockhurst High School, countered that the school’s position should not surprise anyone, particularly former students.

“Helping boys from dysfunctional families is consistent with the Jesuit teachings they learned here,” Pesci said at the time.

By the time it was over, both sides had taken on City Hall. Both sides had lost. A group home did meet code, city officials decided, but they also ruled against Boys Hope Girls Hope, which wanted more than three boys in the house.

So the St. Louis-based organization scouted another spot a few blocks away and built a home from scratch. Nobody complained about the new location. The house is along the State Line corridor, isolated, surrounded by trees with no other homes in sight. The address, like the family names, is not given here for security reasons.

“I can tell you that none of the things people worried about happened and we’ve moved on,” Paul Minorini, president of Boys Hope Girls Hope, said Friday from his office in Bridgeton, Mo. “We’re in the business of helping kids, not fighting neighbors.

“The success of the Kansas City home is a tribute to the community and that staff that is taking care of these kids.”

The boys, ages 10-18, are up most days by 5:45 a.m. They do chores, go to school and study. The older ones have jobs. Television and other media are limited. They eat meals family-style.

“I learned some life lessons I wouldn’t have gotten if I weren’t here,” said Cecil, who has been at the home for six years and graduated from Rockhurst this spring. “I know all about laundry, cooking and cleaning. If I were home, my mom and sister would do all that for me.”

Cecil will soon head off to the University of Kansas where he plans to study international business.

On a recent day, house parent Leigh Ann Ballard took the boys to school and, later, one to football practice.

“I also took four to dentist appointments,” she said.

She does the job with her husband, Robert Laplante. They live in the house and, according to them, treat the boys as they would their own children. Good kids, they say.

“It’s ‘Yes, Ma’am,’ ‘No, Ma’am,’” Ballard said. “They are polite. We give praise and when they mess up, we tell them what they did wrong. We don’t hold grudges and every day is a new day.

“I used to wonder what God’s calling was for me. Not anymore. This is where I’m supposed to be.”

The home’s new executive director, Kimberly Hines, said each boy arrives with a story of struggle — family dysfunction, crime, poverty, transience, even death.

“They all come from very challenging circumstances, but we don’t focus on that,” Hines said. “We focus on the now and the future. These boys just want the opportunity to become the people they were meant to be.”

Libby, another mother, said her son, Logan, who arrived last month, is in the right place. She lives in a center for women in recovery from substance abuse.

“I miss him, but he’s better off here,” Libby said. “They give him things I can’t.”

Logan, 10, said, “It’s fun being here, but not fun being away from my mom.”

J’Ron, 13, knows the feeling.

“It’s hard, I’m not going to lie,” he said outside on the recent evening. “You leave so much behind — my family and friends, the place I grew up. But I know the sacrifice. I know what this is about. I know why I’m here.”

Then he walked away, back inside to the dinner in his honor, his polished black dress shoes shining in the evening sun.

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

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