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 daycare and school. She asked her 12-year-old daughter, Chanae, to get the car running so it wouldn’t 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 joyride. Maybe the car would turn up in a few days.
“I just knew anything I had left — everything — was in my car. Everything,” she said. “And they stole everything.”
For the 25-year-old mother of three who had already lost her home and was on the edge of losing her job at a security company, the car theft could easily have derailed her life.
Thankfully, the Kansas City, Kan., woman had three devoted women fighting in her corner.
Susan Vogliardo and Leslie Chalmers of Leawood and Grace Becker of Kansas City founded Starfish Ministry about two years ago after hearing Sister Berta Sailer speak about the powerful grip of generational poverty. The women had been volunteering separately at Operation Breakthrough, a center helping children in poverty that Sailer runs. 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 don’t 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 don’t understand how much they use networks.”
Starfish provides families with financial help, but at the ministry’s core is a focus on building personal relationships and networks. While the ministry is not under the umbrella of the women’s 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 was throwing them back in the water, since he couldn’t 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 can’t change the world, but we can try to help one family at the time,” Vogliardo said.
And Starfish’s reach does continue to grow.
The three original members started working with the first mom to join the program, Michelle Lee, almost two years ago.
About a year later, they felt they were ready to take on another family. Ashley joined the program in August 2012, just after she became homeless. When her car was stolen, it didn’t 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 said they’d 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 daycare every single day until she could get another car.
Ashley didn’t yet know exactly how she and her family would recover from the car theft, but she knew she didn’t 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, inspired the three women to start the ministry when she gave them her take on why generational poverty is so difficult to overcome.
She’s seen families struggle to pick themselves back up after taking financial hit after hit. When they don’t 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 they’re almost like Band-Aids on the problem,” Vogliardo said. “You need to delve a little deeper.”
The three women who started the ministry felt they had a chance to make a meaningful difference if they turned their energy to helping one family at a time.
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. “There’s no manual on how to do this. You just have to take the first step even if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
The women hope their work in the ministry can help break the cycle of poverty for the families they mentor. If not for the mothers themselves, then at least for their children.
Starfish has three groups of mentors working with a total of four families, and that number will likely grow.
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.
Each of the Starfish mentors brings their own network and skill set to the table.
Ashley, a certified nursing assistant, wouldn’t have known about an opening at Rose Estates assisted living facility in Overland Park without a tip from Joe Vogliardo, Susan’s 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 Lee, 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 Lee’s children needed speech therapy, Chalmers gave advice, since one of her own children had needed it.
When one of the families in the program needs anything — gas cards, Walmart gift cards, school uniforms — the mentors send out an email with donation requests to about 280 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.”
If you go to the Vogliardo house in Leawood during a Starfish family dinner, you might have to strain to hear the grownups talking while Michelle Lee’s two children, Gary and Nicole, play with the neighbor kids.
When dinner’s ready, the families gather around tables that have been pushed together so everyone can fit. The room is briefly quiet, and Lee’s 9-year-old son, Gary, bows his head and says a prayer.
Conversation picks back up when people start eating. Nicole, Lee’s daughter, sits next to Chalmers and chatters about her day.
When the kids finish eating, they run to the backyard and pick up their game of croquet. The adults talk business.
Lee, who has been working toward a degree from Johnson County Community College, updates the Starfish mentors on her class schedule and discusses the options her kids have for school this coming fall.
For all the familiar teasing and easy conversation, it would be easy to assume these interactions have always felt so relaxed. But when Lee first joined the program, the getting-to-know-you process took time, and it was at times a little awkward and complicated by misunderstandings.
“It does take time to develop a trust,” Chalmers said. “She thought we were getting some big tax write-off for it. She didn’t understand why somebody else would want to help someone they didn’t know.”
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.
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, Lee felt a little overwhelmed at their eagerness, and the mentors felt worn out by the enormity of the project.
“I thought we’d get her a car so she could get to work, she’d get a job, fixed. No,” Becker said with a laugh. “Money isn’t key. It really is relationships.”
For the first year and a half, the women worked on building trust and adjusting their expectations from the program.
“They live day to day, and handing them things is not always going to change things,” Vogliardo said. “It’s a lot slower process. It’s a lot smaller process. And I think once you realize that, it’s still awesome. Your frustration level goes way down.”
Lee joined a Bible study at Church of the Nativity and found herself noticing the stark differences between her struggles and those of the other women in the Leawood church, who would talk about problems scheduling spring-break vacations or planning after-school programs.
“Michelle would go, ‘I don’t have any of that. You know, I don’t even think about that. I can’t afford to send my kids to after-school activities,’” Chalmers said. “I think she learned a lot from that Bible study, and they learned a lot from her.”
At a family dinner at Chalmers’ house in late July, the Starfish mentors hear Ashley’s exciting news one by one.
Vogliardo found out about it yesterday, and she tells Chalmers, who gasps with excitement.
Ashley didn’t make a big fuss when she got to the house, but the day before, she had found out she’d 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 Lee’s children to attend St. Thomas More school in Kansas City. Lee noticed a dramatic shift in the kids’ attitudes shortly after they started school.
“Gary knows scriptures in the Bible that I don’t even know,” she said. “It’s helping build their character.”
Vogliardo, Chalmers and Becker have helped three of the Starfish moms get cars.
A month and a half after Ashley’s 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 off 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.
Lee is working toward a degree from Johnson County Community College, and working part time at an assistantship there.
For the founders of Starfish, these leaps forward show the power of the ministry. But more often, quiet, understated moments reveal the ministry’s impact.
“We were at Grace’s house for something, and Gary turned to me and said, ‘Aren’t you proud of my mom for going to school?’” Chalmers said. “And it gave me chills. He noticed his mom was taking steps forward. It’s little things like that.”
Last year, the Starfish mentors threw Lee a party for her 27th birthday. Gary and Nicole got a tickle out of making their mom a coupon book full of promises to do things like clean their room. They lit candles and sang to her.
Lee turned to Vogliardo and said she couldn’t remember the last time someone sang “Happy Birthday” to her.
Vogliardo drove Gary to school every day for a year. One of her son’s friends gave him swimming lessons. Nicole has dramatically improved in school after the mentors and other people from their network tutored her for a year.
And the women have learned that for mothers who rarely get a break, small acts like babysitting the kids for an evening can mean as the grandiose gestures.
The Starfish mentors act as cheerleaders, mentors, family.
“It gave me hope,” Lee said of the program. “Sometimes I just need a little push to say, ‘You can do it.’”
At the end of the school year, the Starfish mentors took the kids out to Winstead’s for skyscraper sodas to celebrate.
This kind of care is just another side to having a support system.
During these little moments, and months of spending time together, the women have forged lasting friendships. When they first formed the ministry, Chalmers and Vogliardo didn’t know Becker at all.
The three women don’t foresee a future where they aren’t still in touch with Ashley and Lee. For them, becoming Starfish mentors meant a lifetime commitment. They hope the families they work with won’t need them as much in the future, but that doesn’t mean the bonds won’t last.
“They’re 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. In the long run, Ashley wants to work with troubled teens so she can give them the advice and encouragement she could have used growing up.
From Ashley’s 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.”
Just because she grew up in poverty does not mean her children have to spend their adulthood struggling the way she has.
And that’s what keeps Starfish going.