Vernal Simpson was barely making ends meet in a tiny basement apartment, while raising her great-granddaughter, 16-year-old Dasha Simpson, and great-great-grandbaby Dexter. The washing machine was broken, the fridge had gone out, and the water had been turned off.
By ALICIA STICE and JENNIFER BHARGAVA
The Kansas City Star
The place wasnt designed to be accessible for the 88-year-old Kansas City woman, who uses a wheelchair.
Thankfully, Simpson had Starfish Ministry fighting in her corner.
Starfish was founded by three Kansas City area women after they heard Sister Berta Sailer speak about the powerful grip of generational poverty.
Grace Becker of Kansas City and Leawood residents Susan Vogliardo and Leslie Chalmers had been volunteering separately at Operation Breakthrough, a center helping children in poverty that Sailer runs on Troost Avenue. They decided they wanted to do more.
Unbeknownst to each other, Becker and Vogliardo approached Sailer on the same day. She put them in touch with each other, and Starfish Ministry was born.
The thinking behind the project is simple: Nobody can get on their feet without a strong support system. People in poverty dont have the connections that those with privilege use and take for granted every day.
If I wanted to buy a used car, I would call someone who knew about used cars, Sailer said. People with resources dont understand how much they use networks.
Starfish provides families with financial help, but at the ministrys core is a focus on building personal relationships and networks. While the ministry is not under the umbrella of the womens Catholic parishes Church of the Nativity in Leawood and St. Thomas More in south Kansas City the Starfish mentors tap into their church connections as part of their networks.
In the program, a team of three mentors works with one family and gives them any help they can. The mentors act as a personal network for each family. The ministry has helped moms find jobs, paid for private school tuition and offset the cost of basic living expenses like food and housing.
The women named their ministry Starfish after a story about a little boy walking along a beach covered with starfish. When people asked him why he was throwing them back in the water, since he couldnt possibly make a difference for all the thousands of starfish washed ashore, he picked one up, looked at it and said, I made a difference for that one.
By working to meet the broader needs with individual families, the women at Starfish hope they can have a lasting impact on the women they work with.
So the thought is, we cant change the world, but we can try to help one family at a time, Vogliardo said.
Simpsons life is now better for their efforts.
Starfish mentors secured Simpson and her family a new home at Pemberton Place, a Kansas City apartment community for grandparents raising grandchildren.
Before showing the family their clean, spacious new home, the mentors furnished the unit with secondhand furniture and new appliances.
Simpson was so overwhelmed, she couldnt contain her emotion.
All these people here are my family, said Simpson, gesturing to the mentors smiling around her. They have been so beautiful to me, and Im thankful to God for them.
Even after spending a few nights in the apartment, she still couldnt believe her good luck.
I used to sleep on a cot on the floor and every morning when I woke up, my back would hurt, Simpson said. Now, I wake up in my big new bed, and I dont want to get up in the morning.
The complexs amenities have already made her life much easier.
Its in a safer neighborhood. There is easier bus access. The complex is accessible to people with disabilities. There is a social worker on staff, and a washer and dryer in each unit.
Helping Simpson and her family get accepted there required months of hard work and problem-solving, which astounded her mentors.
Weve all learned so much about government assistance and other programs, much more than we ever could have imagined, said Sue Sabaugh of Leawood. You cant just fill out a piece of paper and expect to get help. The system is so complex, which is frightening because I dont know how people can expect to get through it all without a team of help.
The look of overwhelming gratitude on Simpsons face when she saw the apartment for the first time will stay in the hearts of her mentors forever.
Ive been involved in big charities before, Sabaugh said. But this was the first time that I helped just one family, and it was incredibly rewarding.
Although the new apartment is a lifesaver, it is only one mile-stone in a long mentoring friendship.
The mentors have helped Dasha become accepted into Hope Academy and are now helping her find child care for 4-month-old Dexter so she can go back to school. They also will work with the family on basic life and financial skills, not only to get them back on their feet but to prepare them for the future.
The mentors hard work warms the heart of Marty Seaton, a lawyer who is a friend of Simpson. He met the retired nursing assistant while he was volunteering at a local charity and helped her get in touch with Starfish.
You cant survive in this world without hope and human dignity, said Seaton of Kansas City. What I love about Starfish is how the organization helps these people in the long run. If you feed someone who is hungry, youve helped them for a day, but Starfish is helping people for years to come.
The thieves took everything.
Already homeless and staying with her sister, Chanel Ashley was keeping her life in her car. Clothes for each of her two jobs; baby formula for her youngest son, Lorenzo; diapers and baby wipes all gone in an instant.
Like any other day, Ashley had spent the January morning getting her children ready for day care and school. She asked her 12-year-old daughter, Chanae, to get the car running so it wouldnt be so cold when the family of four got in.
By the time they stepped outside, the car was gone.
Ashley prayed the thieves had just taken it for a joy ride.
I just knew anything I had left everything was in my car. Everything, she said. And they stole everything.
The mother of three, who turns 26 this week, had already lost her home and was on the edge of losing her job at a security company. Clearly, the car theft could have derailed her life.
But it didnt take her Starfish mentors Vogliardo, Chalmers and Becker 30 minutes to start looking for a replacement.
The next day, Becker drove Ashley to the tow lot after police recovered the stolen car. It was totaled.
Before she dropped Ashley off at home, Becker offered to drive her to work and her kids to day care every single day until she could get another car.
Ashley didnt yet know exactly how she and her family would recover from the theft, but she knew she didnt have to figure it out alone.
For the women who run Starfish, the ministry has meant coming to a better understanding of generational poverty.
Sailer, who co-founded Operation Breakthrough, has seen families struggle to pick themselves back up after taking financial hit after hit. When they dont have a group of people with money and connections to help them get a foothold, moving up can be nearly impossible.
There are great things out there like homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and all those are very needed, but theyre almost like Band-Aids on the problem, Vogliardo said. You need to delve a little deeper.
The three founders felt they had a chance to make a meaningful difference if they turned their energy to helping one family at a time. They started working more than two years ago with the first mom to join the program.
About a year later, the three founders felt they were ready to take on another family. Ashley joined the program in August 2012, just after she became homeless.
And Starfishs reach continues to grow. The ministry has six groups of mentors, and seven families are now part of the program.
Vogliardo, Becker and Chalmers hope more groups at different churches or organizations will decide to become mentors and use their spheres of influence to connect more families to resources they need.
For Starfish, its about providing hard-working people with just the right boost to get back on their feet, said co-founder Becker.
It was a new experience for everyone involved, but they decided it was time to dive in headfirst and figure it out as they went.
We all have our own fears and preconceived notions, Becker said. Theres no manual on how to do this. You just have to take the first step, even if you dont know what youre doing.
The women hope their work can help break the cycle of poverty for the families they mentor. If not for the mothers, then at least for their children.
After all, Becker said, most people born into generational poverty were not taught basic skills, like saving money, and dont have a network of people to turn to when something goes wrong.
Being a mentor is like being a parent, Becker said. They just need somebody to talk to them about wise spending and saving money. They need someone to help them see the bigger picture.
Each mentor brings his or her own network and skill set to the table.
Ashley, a certified nursing assistant, wouldnt have known about a job opening at the Rose Estates assisted living facility in Overland Park without a tip from Joe Vogliardo, Susans husband, who works there.
Becker used to run a catering business and uses her baking expertise and commercial kitchen to help bake cinnamon rolls to raise money.
When the first mom in the program felt her wisdom teeth start to come in, Vogliardo put her in touch with one of her friends, a dentist.
When one of that womans children needed speech therapy, Chalmers gave advice, since one of her own children had needed it.
When a family in the program needs anything gasoline cards, Wal-Mart gift cards, school uniforms the mentors send out emails with donation requests to more than 325 people.
These specific requests make offering help seem more manageable for people who might not have time to take on the role of Starfish mentor.
I think people feel that they have been in on this journey with us, and I think they like that, Vogliardo said. Even though they might have never met the families, they kind of know their stories from our emails.
When they first started, Vogliardo, Chalmers and Becker thought they would see more dramatic improvements more quickly than they did. It took a while for them to better understand the day-to-day survival mode that poverty requires of the people living in it.
It does take time to develop a trust, Chalmers said.
Sometimes without meaning to, the Starfish mentors have been an overwhelming presence to the mothers in the program. At several points during the first few months, one mother felt a little overwhelmed at their eagerness, and the mentors felt worn out by the enormity of the project.
I thought wed get her a car so she could get to work, shed get a job, fixed. No, Becker said with a laugh. Money isnt key. It really is relationships.
For the first year and a half, the women worked on building trust and adjusting their expectations.
They live day to day, and handing them things is not always going to change things, Vogliardo said. Its a lot slower process. Its a lot smaller process. And I think once you realize that, its still awesome. Your frustration level goes way down.
One of the most shocking things Becker has learned was how confusing and potentially unfair the welfare system can be.
As soon as a woman starts earning minimum wage, there are drastic decreases to assistance, she said. Suddenly, these women cant afford child care. It becomes more expensive to have a job.
Becker said the program has become a bridge between socio-economic groups because the mentors learn from the people theyre helping.
We cant imagine the hurdles these people have faced. Theyre resilient and bounce back so impressively, while most of us would break.
At a family dinner at Chalmers house in late July, the Starfish mentors heard Ashleys exciting news one by one.
Ashley didnt make a big fuss when she got to the house, but the day before, she learned that shed been bumped up to full-time at her Rose Estates job, something she had spent months working for.
When she took the job in May, her part-time schedule meant a substantial pay cut from her unemployment checks. She toughed it out, with the help of the Starfish mentors, and it paid off.
For the moms who enter the Starfish ministry, the mentors become a steady fixture in their families lives.
Last year, Starfish helped pay for one mothers children to attend St. Thomas More school in Kansas City.
Vogliardo, Chalmers and Becker have helped three Starfish moms get cars.
A month and a half after Ashleys car was stolen, the Starfish women found her a used van. They paid for new tires, air filters, brake repairs and replaced the master cylinder. They also put her in touch with the Bishop Sullivan Center, which gave her an interest-free loan, allowing her to pay off the car in a year at $100 a month.
When I got the van, when they got it all fixed up, that was one of the happiest moments of my life, Ashley said.
But the women have learned that for mothers who rarely get a break, small acts like evening babysitting can mean as much as grandiose gestures. Through months of spending time together, the women have forged lasting friendships. When they first formed the ministry, Chalmers and Vogliardo didnt know Becker at all.
The three women dont foresee a future where they arent still in touch with their first two moms. They hope the families wont need them as much in the future, but that doesnt mean the bonds wont last.
Theyre more like my mother, all three of them, Ashley said. They play more of a mothering role than a mentoring role.
She and the Starfish women are now focused on finding her a home in a safer neighborhood. Ashley hopes to go back to college in January, and in the long run, she wants to work with troubled teens so she can give them the advice and encouragement she could have used growing up.
From Ashleys perspective, the future holds new chances for her and her children.
I think if you have faith and just trust, not worry so much, pray about it, you will get better than what you had, Ashley said. And I did. And my kids will get better than they had.
And thats what keeps Starfish going.
If you would like to donate, you can send checks payable to Starfish Ministry to
705 SW 10th St. Ste. 109
Blue Springs, MO 64015
You can also email the mentors:
Grace Becker: email@example.com
Leslie Chalmers: firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Vogliardo: email@example.com