Alice Kitchen, ‘one of the great Kansas Citians,’ is retired, but not resting

Spirited social worker Alice Kitchen continues her advocacy work.

06/30/2012 5:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:54 PM

Retirement, for most people, does not mean tramping through a malaria-infested jungle to investigate shooting deaths in a combat zone.

But Alice Kitchen is not most people.

For decades, people in Kansas City have known her as the small, quick woman who could never confine herself to a day job as director of social services for Children’s Mercy Hospital. She always found more work to do.

For most of Kitchen’s career, that work included things like establishing a center to protect abused children, helping young mothers get health insurance and organizing neighborhood cleanups as a board member of the Kansas City Housing Authority.

Kitchen built a reputation over time as a dedicated and capable advocate for the most vulnerable in society. Governors, senators and congressmen made time to listen to her, and they still do.

Now retired for two years, Kitchen still works every day — but for her own causes.

“I’m working full time now at what I used to do at night,” she said.

Kitchen’s private pursuits have taken her places most people will never see.

When former colleagues learned that Kitchen recently returned from a human rights mission in a remote and dangerous region of Central America, they were not altogether surprised.

“That’s Alice,” said Terri Hickam, a program director at Children’s Mercy. “Oh my gosh, I can see her jumping on something like that in a second.”

The Mosquito Coast of Honduras, a vast rain forest with no roads and few people, is a haven for smugglers. Kitchen, 69, traveled there in May with a group of teachers and students associated with the activist groups Alliance for Global Justice and Rights Action.

They wanted to conduct their own investigation of the deaths of four people during a firefight between Honduran national police and a group of drug traffickers. Kitchen and her group are concerned about the role of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency advisers who were present at the scene of the shooting.

The jungle is a long way from the Brookside neighborhood of Kansas City, where Kitchen grew up. The road that brought her there started on the west side of town.

It disturbed Kitchen, as a Catholic high school student volunteering at the Guadalupe Center in the 1950s, to see people lacking so many of the advantages she took for granted. At home, she enjoyed a television, running water, electricity, food on the table, a Chevy in the driveway. But many of the families in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods she visited with her school’s community service group lacked all these things.

“It just didn’t seem right,” she said. “Why can’t they have what I have?”

Kitchen graduated and joined a convent in Encino, Calif., called Sisters of Social Service. While preparing to take the vows of a nun, she ministered to domestic workers in Beverly Hills, most of them Mexican immigrants.

“They were lonely, poorly paid, isolated and subject to the whims of their employers,” she said.

Kitchen could do little to alleviate their working conditions, but she didn’t forget them.

Kitchen left the convent before taking her final vows as a nun, hoping for a fuller life. She earned a master’s degree in social work at UCLA and returned to Kansas City to work in a legal aid office.

One of her jobs was to help young, first-time offenders avoid a longer criminal record and being unemployable. She would not name names, but Kitchen said she now knows judges and prominent lawyers whom she first met after they had come to her office with minor charges of theft or disturbing the peace.

From then on, Kitchen’s life became a long series of crusades all over the city. During her two decades at Children’s Mercy, she organized efforts to find funding for specialized treatments needed by children with unusual medical problems and worked on programs to help young mothers get off drugs. Meanwhile she consoled bereaved families on a regular basis.

“Alice Kitchen is for sure one of the great Kansas Citians,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat. “If you are talking about social service in Kansas City, you can’t have that conversation for long without hearing her name.”

There seems little that Kitchen didn’t touch on at one time or another in the social service world. A member of numerous boards, associations, partnerships and conferences, Kitchen has a reputation for being passionate about her causes. Daryl Lynch, a physician at Children’s Mercy, said it is Kitchen’s nature to dive in rather than just talk about issues.

In some cases, she became very active in controversies over gun and insurance legislation.

“Alice is not afraid to roll up her sleeves and get in the dirt,” Lynch said. “She would never ask someone to do something she wouldn’t do herself.”

Kitchen continued taking up causes even after she retired from Children’s Mercy. She also left the Catholic Church, though she still is a member of some Catholic women’s groups. She now attends Episcopalian services instead.

“The rigidity that I grew up with is not prominent in my life,” she said.

In April, Kitchen picked up a megaphone and led 70 protesting Catholics to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. She brought a letter of protest, three pages long and rolled into a scroll, denouncing church leaders in Rome for a recent dispute with U.S. nuns. Kitchen intended to use Scotch tape to affix the scroll to the cathedral door, in the style of Martin Luther’s famous letter of protest in the 16th century.

The rector of the cathedral intervened, offering a roll of masking tape instead, so as to not damage the finish on the door.

Kitchen agreed.

Kitchen has traveled to Honduras twice since 2009 on human rights observation missions, most recently in May. Each time, she traveled with Judy Ancel, a labor studies professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and head of the Cross Border Network, an international activist group. Ancel said Kitchen has become a valuable member of the group.

So in May, Kitchen traveled by riverboat to the village of Ahuas in coastal Honduras and stepped out from under a wild forest canopy to inspect bullet holes in boats, burned houses and wounded villagers. She and her group returned to Kansas City to report what they saw to the public and their elected representatives. The group hopes to persuade members of the U.S. Senate to investigate what it is calling a massacre.

“The physical danger aspect is a new addition, but I guess I’m not surprised she went there,” said Oneta Templeton McMann, a Children’s Mercy social worker who has known Kitchen for 20 years.

Templeton McMann said she has always known Kitchen to be a tireless fighter who doesn’t take no for an answer.

“I always say, don’t just moan and complain about something to Alice or she’ll have you testifying before Congress and she’ll be convening meetings and study groups,” she said.

Kitchen has become a valuable member of the Cross Border Network, partly because she knows so many people, and people know her. Kitchen has helped the group contact U.S. representatives and senators for the Kansas City area.

“Alice is really respected by people,” Ancel said. “She’s very good at helping elected representatives understand the issues.”

When Ancel and the Cross Border Network hosted an informational meeting about their trip Monday at the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library, Kitchen busied herself all over the room.

She arranged the fruit trays and pamphlets at the snack table, introduced people to each other and helped sign them in.

Once the meeting started, she slipped on her reading glasses and listened patiently as the other organizers raised questions about the United States military’s role in Central America.

When it was her turn to speak, she opened a bundle of statistical reports and painted a picture of life in Honduras, in black and white figures, year by year.

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