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Reconciliation Services strives to build community of hope for those in need along Troost

Updated: 2013-08-21T20:25:17Z

By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN

Special to The Star

It’s 5 p.m. on a sweltering summer evening in one of Kansas City’s urban hotspots — the Troost corridor, historically referred to as Kansas City’s racial dividing line.

The air inside Reconciliation Services at 3101 Troost Ave. is tepid as an unofficial doorman allows a constant flow of people into the interfaith nonprofit’s community gathering room.

William H. Jackson’s Army ring flashes on his left hand as the veteran, sitting in a battered electric wheelchair next to a scarred upright piano, a cane propped in front of him, balances a paper plate heaped with pasta, bread and meat.

A package of generic menthol cigarettes is tucked into his shirt pocket and a ball cap perches jauntily on his head. Extra cookies wrapped in a napkin from tonight’s meal are stashed in the wheelchair’s metal basket.

Jackson dabs the corners of his mouth with a napkin, and his eyes, magnified behind thick glasses, scan the room.

“Good crowd tonight,” he said. “People are hungry from this heat.”

Housed in a historic building on Troost, Reconciliation Services is a social service agency that functions as a safety net for individuals and families — like Jackson — who might otherwise go without.

At the center of its mission is a vision to transform Troost Avenue into a gathering place for the city where healing and hope can grow from the painful lessons of discrimination.

Among other activities, Reconciliation Services helps coordinate and promote annual celebrations like Troost Fest. It also facilitates weekly meetings for the grassroots coalition known as Troost Folks, conducts listening campaigns in the neighborhood and participates in Troost Alliance, a social services network.

Father Paisius “David” Altschul, an Orthodox Christian priest who for 25 years dedicated his life to making the neighborhood more inclusive, retired in June as executive director.

Today clients like Jackson, 69, are beneficiaries of Altschul’s commitment.

Jackson experienced hard times after going on disability and losing a job as a security officer. When he needed food, a friend told him about the Monday night pantry at Reconciliation Services.

“I don’t come here every week for groceries, but that’s what introduced me to this place,” said Jackson. “And I come almost every Friday night for the dinner.”

Frank Poertner has been living temporarily several doors down in a storefront church. This night, he is concerned about a problem with his cellphone. Without a working phone, it will be even more difficult for him, at age 73, to find housing.

Poertner speaks earnestly with Father Justin Mathews, who now holds the executive director position of Reconciliation Services. Mathews listens intently to Poertner, never breaking eye contact, offering possible solutions.

Curls frame Mathews’ face, and beads of sweat trickles from his forehead into a well-trimmed beard. He wraps up conversation and surveys the room.

“We coordinated with others to offer Friday meals to fill a gap in services,” said Mathews. “We strive never to duplicate services, focusing on unmet needs.”

Friday meals are served restaurant-style, rather than cafeteria-line style typical in a homeless shelter.

“We try to create as much dignity as possible for our guests,” Mathews said.

Mother Nicole Oakes, director of programs for Reconciliation Services, swishes by Jackson with an armful of plastic forks rolled up in napkins, replenishing a basket on a cart holding two large coolers.

Volunteers quickly dispense water to keep up with the demand.

Oakes’ traditional, long black habit flutters and creates a breeze as she glides about the room, calling clients by name, offering a warm smile, bending down to talk privately with a man wearing a KC Royals cap and soiled T-shirt.

“This may be the only hot meal many people have during the week,” said Oakes. “We’ll serve nearly 300 in two hours, not including takeout meals.”

According to Mathews, who lives in the neighborhood with his wife and three young boys, Reconciliation Services provides emergency services to those looking for a job, individuals with mental illness who have nowhere to turn, men and women released from prison wanting to start a new life, men trying to find work to support their families and single mothers with two jobs who have a disabled child at home.

“It goes on from there,” he said. “The elderly, families — we never turn anyone away.”

In addition to Friday night meals and Monday food pantry, Reconciliation Services has myriad entry points for people requiring self-sufficiency assistance, like documents necessary to live in today’s society.

“You can’t do anything without proper ID,” said Mathews. “We help people navigate the bureaucracy to get what they need for access to jobs, health care, education and social services — obtain a birth certificate or state identification.”

He said the agency also offers job training and fatherhood classes through its partner, ReEngage, and a new program that helps women suffering from trauma and depression. It’s being piloted with funds from the Jackson County mental health levy.

Reconciliation Services, with a skeletal staff of six, has spartan offices on the building’s second floor and delivers diverse and holistic therapeutic services like clinical case management, a medicine cabinet and support groups to clients.

The nonprofit also has a robust Foster Grandparents program connecting children with exceptional needs to senior volunteers, and recently partnered with Connecting for Good, an effort to bridge the digital divide and promote digital literacy.

“When emergency assistance is provided to a family or individual three or more times during one year, a case worker is assigned to help with other services like homeless prevention, rent and utility assistance and referral to an extensive network of other agencies,” said Mathews.

Reconciliation Services is not intended as a Band-Aid program for people. Help is concentrated and consistent with an overarching mission to rebuild community one person at a time.

“We want to help bring our community to a self-sustaining point where Reconciliation Services is no longer needed,” said Mathews. “We are laser focused on those not able to receive services. A board member once remarked, ‘We often help people on their way to the bridge to jump, people who have been rejected again and again and have nowhere else to turn.’”

Kimberly Harper, 39, has finished her meal and sits quietly at a table.

“Monday food pantry is how I came in the door years ago,” said Harper, who has a 14-year-old daughter. “They are angels, especially Mother Nicole. Their arms are open to anybody. They bless people and the community.”

Harper sports large silver hoop earrings threaded with bright purple balls, and admits to loving fashion. One of her most cherished items is a pair of silver, black and blue Brooks athletic shoes.

“Someone in Johnson County gave them to an organization that collects used running shoes,” said Harper. “I told Mother Nicole I needed some tennis shoes and they helped me.”

Mother Nicole pauses a moment in her service to pop a Ry Cooder disc into an aged CD player.

“There,” she smiles as upbeat music fills the room and she shuttles water to clients. “That’s nice.”

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