Two guys walked out of a bar and into a homeless shelter.
No, that isn’t the start of a bad joke. It’s the start of a group named The Call KC, which works to connect volunteers to the thousands of nonprofits in the Kansas City area that need help.
In the Northland, they connected more than 1,200 high school freshmen to 40 organizations during a Service Learning Day this spring.
In Johnson County, they’ve connected professionals to regular opportunities, like the group from VinSolutions that volunteers one day a month at a food pantry.
They help small nonprofits, like the Geaux Haiti organization run by a student from the Barstow School, to get a little extra promotion for their fundraisers.
The “two guys,” Brent Lager and Brent Lobdell, were 26 years old three years ago when they decided they wanted their lives to have more purpose.
“We were going out and wasting money,” Lager said. “I just really wanted to do something that had meaning. I wanted to do something that mattered.”
The Call KC is built on the premise that most people want to help, but don’t have the time to sort through the options to find convenient opportunities matched with what they like to do.
The Call KC takes on that task. They match people and organizations, working as a “dating service” of sorts. They describe themselves as the match.com of the service world. They make the match and hope people find a place they love to serve, build a relationship on their own and keep going back.
Three years in, they have placed more than 4,000 people in 11,000 service hours at nearly 100 local nonprofits.
The “two Brents” are longtime friends who grew up together in Parkville. They went to the same college and joined the same fraternity. They both moved back to the Kansas City area after graduation to start their adult lives.
“We were actually just doing what normal people do when they get back in town, going out to bars and not really doing anything important,” said Lobdell, who works as an account manager for Central States Beverage.
They thought they would start by volunteering during the December holidays in 2012 and found the task was easier said than done. They would call places and not find any space or opportunity to help. Looking back, Lager says he believes part of their problem was poor timing: Charities are flooded at the holidays with people looking to help or give.
Finally, in January, the two spotted a line of people awaiting services outside a shelter. They went in and offered to serve.
“We just walked in to a homeless shelter downtown, and we served like 300 people that morning. We got bit by the bug,” said Lager, who gets a small salary of around $900 a month for his work.
The turning point for Lager came when he offered two young children candy bars. They were so thrilled by what he considered to be a simple pleasure he knew he had found that “purpose” he was looking to fill. It was in volunteering to serve others.
“After that we wanted to look for more things to do,” Lobdell said. “That became difficult. You could find opportunities at the big guys, but some of the smaller stuff, people who actually need the volunteer help, is a little more difficult to track down.”
They did a little research and realized there were about 7,000 registered nonprofits in Kansas City. The majority of these nonprofits are small and have to spend time on their missions, rather than on volunteer recruitment.
Lager had a vision to help change that. He asked Lobdell to help. They decided they were young, had time on their hands and could maybe help locate the organizations that needed the help and find them volunteers.
They started The Call KC by calling on family and friends. Lager quit his day job as a reporter for the Leavenworth Times to work on the project full time. The organization got its own 501(c)3 nonprofit status and put together a 12-member board. An all-volunteer staff handles corporate outreach, volunteer lead development, grant writing and fundraising. Several people work on software development.
The Call is not a computer-based matching system that reacts to algorithms and mathematical assumptions. Instead, it’s hands-on work; a person, usually Lager, calls the people needing help and finds out what kind of work is available, how many people they need and how often they could use volunteers.
Often, Lager or Lobdell talks with potential volunteers to find out what kind of work they might enjoy or what service opportunities might be convenient for their availability and skills.
Then they make a match.
“We try to make volunteering as easy as possible,” Lager said. “We connect and reconnect. The idea is if we get more groups to do it regularly, then we’re creating an army of volunteers. We hope that if we get a ton of people volunteering, we can lead to a consistent change in Kansas City.”
At the Hillcrest Hope thrift store near downtown Liberty, eight North Kansas City High School freshmen spent one morning in April sorting clothes, unpacking boxes and dressing mannequins. A half dozen of their peers planted flowers, hauled trash and sorted food pantry items at the organization’s residential units.
The rest of their class of nearly 400 students, along with about 800 kids from two other high schools, also spent time volunteering that morning with more than 40 different charitable organizations.
It was all part of a Service Learning Day created last year when high school juniors in the state had their first required ACT testing day and sophomores had a different standardized test on the same day. Seniors were asked to use the day for college or professional visits.
An idea floated to have the freshmen volunteer. North Kansas City High School assistant principal Ashley Bass says they got connected with Lager and The Call KC to discuss a volunteering day.
“It was a daunting prospect to find volunteering opportunities for our entire freshman class,” Bass said. “When we started working with (The Call), it was a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Call KC made all of the connections with the volunteer organizations and found out what kind of work was available and how many students each group could handle at a time. Then they connected the school with the organizations and stepped back.
“Closer to the event, I get hooked up with the organizations directly and then we work out last-minute details,” Bass said.
Once a month, a group of employees from VinSolutions in Mission spends Thursday afternoon helping at Shawnee Community Services. The corporate volunteers help in the food pantry moving food, stacking items and preparing boxes.
Shawnee Community Services generally uses about 1,000 volunteer hours a month. The organization serves the poor in Johnson County. About 200 people a day walk in the door for some kind of assistance. It also serves 450 families a month with food pantry services. Only four staff members serve those in need of service.
Sylvia Terry, president and CEO of Shawnee Community Services, says they have a core group of volunteers, but it is hard to fill the rest of the hours.
Lager contacted her about 10 months ago when VinSolutions was looking for a regular volunteering opportunity. The Call KC helped make the arrangements, taking sign-ups and scheduling volunteers. Terry says The Call KC has taken work off her plate.
“They’ve taken all the work out of it,” Terry said. “They (the volunteers from VinSolutions) show up and they are very helpful, and The Call does the rest.”
VinSolutions volunteer coordinator Jennifer Rens says that volunteering is part of their corporate identity. Each employee is given 16 paid hours a year to volunteer at a charity of their choice.
“We just love it over there,” Rens said of the volunteers who work at Shawnee Community Services.
“It feels like we really get things accomplished. My team feels valued when they go out there, and it’s convenient.”
Rens has worked with The Call KC to put together other large volunteer opportunities the company sponsors for employees, including a volunteer fair that Lager helped her coordinate.
“For him (Lager) to be doing it full time helps me tremendously,” Rens said. “He helps me cover my bases and gets me out to more places. He can give me access to organizations that I haven’t had time to meet with. He is really good with grass-roots groups.”
The Call KC helped Grace McGowan get the word out that she was raising money to help fund educational supplies for Haitian orphans. McGowan, 17, will be a senior in the fall at the Barstow School. She started her nonprofit organization, Geaux Haiti, when she was in eighth grade and went to Haiti with a Parkville-based organization, the Global Orphan Project.
She decided, aside from going to Haiti with the project, she could also help by raising money. Her first fashion show raised $8,000. Each year since then, she has hosted a fundraiser to help with the needs of orphans in Haiti, raising tens of thousands of dollars over the last five years.
Like many other small nonprofits around the metro, McGowan doesn’t have a staff to help with volunteer recruitment. In preparations for a carnival she was planning at Colonial Presbyterian Church this spring, she was searching online for ideas about how to enlist the help of about 150 volunteers. She discovered The Call KC.
“I emailed Brent and just said I really liked what they were doing, that they were getting the word out to the community and were promoting events, and asked if he would be interested in promoting my event,” McGowan said.
Lager put the volunteer opportunity up on the group’s website. He also used this new connection as an opportunity to get the word out about McGowan’s cause. Lager keeps a blog on The Call’s website that promotes various organizations and other types of ways people can give back to the community. He did a feature on McGowan to help promote her cause.
“They were just wonderful to work with,” McGowan said.
It turned out McGowan was able to drum up the number of volunteers she needed through her own connections, but she still felt like the promotional help from The Call KC was important.
This year’s carnival brought out about 300 people and raised more than $10,000 for the educational needs of orphans in Haiti.
Other volunteer matching options in Kansas City, like Catholic Charities and the United Way, post local volunteer opportunities online. A matchup group called Serve KC has about 4,600 members and offers regular meet-up opportunities to serve the community. National online sites like Volunteermatch.org also give nonprofits the opportunity to post service opportunities.
The Call KC leaders say the main difference they offer is in the approach: they are totally focused on making connections and then stepping out of the process as much as possible. They also want to make people aware that service comes in many forms. They want to break the idea that charitable service has to be serving food or cleaning.
“What we’re doing is not really creating a new thing, but we’re making it more accessible and easier,” Lager said.
Board member Colin Barnes says the biggest draw for him to get involved in the organization was seeing how Lager had built all the connections with people in the community.
“I’ve been involved with a lot of nonprofits, but not a lot with the passion to pull people in,” Barnes said.
“It is hands on the ground and doing the dirty work of calling and emailing and meeting face to face. It is not romantic. It’s not cool, but it’s the hard work that has to happen for a lot of these nonprofits to get the volunteers they need and succeed.”
For Lobdell, his greatest satisfaction comes from seeing the people who get connected enjoy the experience of volunteering.
“The biggest thing that sticks out to me is that people want to help,” Lobdell said. “People will come and they would not have volunteered if we didn’t ask them. They now deal directly with the organizations, and they really enjoy it, but didn’t know it until they got out there and did it.”
The Call KC started with mostly friends and family of Lager and Lobdell. Since the board formed, word of mouth has served them well. Participation in the Service Learning Day doubled in just one year’s time.
Lager, Lobdell and the board members have found their sense of purpose.
“I think it’s important to me that everyone knows that getting involved in the community can be really easy,” Barnes said.
“It doesn’t have to be a whole lot of work, and every little bit helps. Even going out just one time can have a big impact that you can’t even imagine.”
For more information
Visit www.thecallkc.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Brent Lager at 816-721-5529.