At 36, Nicole Feltz runs her own insurance office with American Family Insurance in Prairie Village. She is married to the love of her life, 57-year-old Tyler Feltz; is the mother of Grace, a soft-spoken 11-year-old; and the foster parent of a precocious 18-month-old girl. The family lives in Overland Park.
Feltz, a vivacious woman with long blond hair, sparkling green eyes and a bubbly laugh, wears a necklace with a round charm with the word “love” given to her by a good friend and reflecting Feltz’s personal philosophy of treating others with love.
Yet Feltz’s outward appearance reveals little of the dark past she survived as an abused child who lived for a year in a homeless shelter and became a foster child. It is her childhood experiences that motivate her to help those in the foster system today.
She is paying it forward in a big way. For the 12th year, Feltz and her husband, with the support of family and friends, hosted the Feb. 27 Midwinter Blues event, a fundraiser for foster children in Kansas City. This year’s event raised $20,000 for KVC Health Systems, a nonprofit organization that provides a variety of services for children and families, including foster care placement and support. Feltz is also on KVC’s board of directors.
It has been a long journey for Feltz.
“Being a kid that was so lost and so abandoned, I just want kiddos not to feel that way,” Feltz said.
Growing up in Kansas City, Kan., with her mother and a younger brother felt like an adventure, albeit a chaotic one. To this day, she doesn’t know who her father is.
Her mother, Gayle Holmes, was a loud and boisterous waitress.
“We were always moving — condemned apartments with lots of other people,” Feltz said. “It was so volatile. … One day was a party, and the next day people were beating the crap out of each other. … When you put people, kids and trauma together, it is not a good mix. You always had to be prepared to be on the run.”
Her mother was an alcoholic, but she never hit her children.
“She was very gentle and loving, but her father was an alcoholic who beat her daily,” Feltz said.
Holmes was not around much, and money was always tight. Feltz became a surrogate mother to her brother, Michael, making sure they had food to eat.
“There was many a time I would walk across Mill Street with him in a backpack, and we would go to the grocery store and I would say, ‘I have 41 cents worth of food stamps, what can you give me?’ And they would fill the backpack, probably giving us more. Then I would put him back on top of the stuff, and we would head home.”
The two often subsisted on Ramen noodles and bananas.
“I don’t know where we would have been if we didn’t have that,” she said.
Feltz’s mother was often in rehab, and the kids would be passed off to someone. On one occasion, Feltz and Michael went to his father’s place (the kids had different fathers) where she was sexually abused — at the age of 9.
“The man was an alcoholic and drug abuser,” Feltz said. “I don’t know how they found out. … I must have said something to another girl at school.”
That’s when Feltz was removed from the home and taken to live at the Salvation Army Children’s Center in downtown Kansas City.
“I still remember exactly what I was wearing — my maroon corduroys and a matching sweater,” she said.
A few months later, Michael also was taken away from their mother and sent to the shelter, reuniting the siblings. Boys and girls lived separately at the shelter, “but we would see each other,” Feltz said.
Feltz and her brother lived in the shelter for about a year. A few memories linger from her year in the shelter.
“There were girls there that were just like me,” she said. “I didn’t realize that abuse wasn’t something normal. … I remember that I didn’t have to worry about Michael or food. Nobody was hurting us.”
Feltz said the stable shelter life was uncomfortable for her.
“I was used to instability, and I was waiting for it,” she said.
Tanya Johannes is assistant divisional social services director for the Salvation Army of Kansas and Western Missouri. Years ago, when she was a social work supervisor at the children’s shelter, Johannes assisted Feltz.
“As a young girl, Nicole was extremely conscientious and sensitive and very much a caretaker for her sibling,” Johannes said. “One of the challenges she had was allowing the staff to take care of her … but she was full of joy and still is now.”
After a year at the shelter, Michael’s aunt and uncle, Patty and Bob Dobbins, took in both children to live with them and their two teenage sons in northern Missouri. That’s when Feltz said she had her first chance at a “normal” life.
“They were so good to us,” Feltz said. “They were very June and Ward Cleaver.”
The Dobbinses, both in their mid-40s at the time with a son in college and one in high school, gained legal guardianship of the two children.
Patty Dobbins said there were a few bumps in the beginning.
“She (Feltz) is very determined and so am I, and we had some conflicts in the beginning, but we worked it out,” Dobbins said. “She never gave us one moment of problems and she gave us joy. … She was one of the bravest children I have ever known.”
For the first time in her life, Feltz was living in a normal household. As she moved into high school, Feltz got involved in cheerleading, track and student council. She also became an honor roll student and learned how to fit in with others.
“I realized the way to deal with people was laughter … but I always felt like I was the outsider,” Feltz said.
She said it was difficult for her to get comfortable with the idea that life could be good.
“I still to this day think about it — that everything is so good, so when is something bad going to happen?” she said.
After high school, Feltz went off to college at Northwest Missouri State University and pursued a degree in elementary education.
“But when I went to do my student teaching, I decided I needed to get away from these little people,” she said with a laugh.
Realizing teaching was not for her, Feltz changed both career direction and schools, attending Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. Feltz put herself through school working at an American Family Insurance office during the day.
“I worked a lot in college,” she said. “I didn’t have time to do anything else. … But I got into the insurance field and did well at it.”
After college, Feltz moved to the Kansas City area to pursue work in the insurance industry and met her husband.
“We worked for the same insurance company and became friends,” Feltz said.
With her tumultuous childhood, Feltz had had her share of bad relationships before meeting Tyler. It took a while for a romance to develop because she was skeptical of men.
“He’s pretty spectacular,” Feltz said, a Cheshire Cat smile overtaking her face. “We probably hit it off so well because he wasn’t controlling.”
The couple have been together for 13 years and have been married for almost seven years.
“I was a little bit of a commitment-phobic,” said Feltz about dragging her feet to walk down the aisle.
“It took me quite a few years to trust anyone,” she said. “I didn’t know what love looked like … and it took me a while to know what love should look like. You have to take a leap of faith and trust.”
Today the Feltzes focus on a special gift resulting from their relationship — their biological child, Grace.
“I was blessed by the grace of God, and now I have Grace,” she said.
Feltz even has her daughter’s name tattooed on the inside of her left wrist — a permanent, visual reminder of her importance.
While her life was going in such a positive direction, Feltz still felt a tug at her heart — helping foster children who were not as lucky as she was in escaping abuse and neglect.
“We were standing in our kitchen and there was a news story that some guy put a baby in a microwave, and I said, ‘Somebody should do something.’ My husband said, ‘OK, you are somebody, do something,’ and that’s when we decided to foster.”
The Feltzes went to classes and got licensed to become foster parents through the state of Kansas. In 2012, they received their first two foster children, ages 6 and 7. The children, with so much trauma in their lives, were more challenging than they bargained for.
“They would stand at the kitchen table and not sit so they could run at a moment’s notice. … It was a little eye-opening,” she said.
Despite the rocky start, the Feltzes did not give up on fostering. Since beginning their journey as foster parents, they have had 14 children in their home.
Foster parents face many challenges. Among them is not knowing how long they will have a child in their home.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
“We always ask Grace afterward if she wants to keep doing this, and she has told us she thought we were helping people and we should keep doing it.”
Their current foster daughter has been with them for a year.
“She is the best baby ever,” Feltz said. “When we picked her up from Children’s Mercy (Hospital). She had all these tubes treating her for problems. … The nurse just said take her home and love her.”
The Feltz family is in the process of adopting the little girl, who is healthy now.
At a recent court hearing, the girl’s birth mother relinquished her rights. A June hearing is scheduled to address terminating the birth father’s rights.
“Now we will wait and see,” Feltz said.
In addition to helping these children through foster care, the Feltzes wanted to assist organizations that care for abused and neglected kids on a daily basis. That’s why they started the Midwinter Blues event more than a decade ago.
“We started in our kitchen,” Nicole Feltz said. “I asked the (Salvation Army) shelter what they needed, and we asked friends to bring tooth brushes, socks, underwear and hair products for the children.”
That first fundraiser at the Feltz home had 10 people; this year’s event at the Ball Center drew a crowd of 600.
For the first nine years, Midwinter Blues collected items and raised funds for the Salvation Army’s Children’s Center where Feltz lived as a child.
“The whole theory behind it was when I was in the shelter after Christmas, it was very lonely; the presents were gone and all the do-gooders were gone,” she said. “We wanted to create an event during this time for the kids and bring things to them.”
Johannes of the Salvation Army wasn’t surprised when she heard from Feltz about helping others.
“When she got to the place where she was a grown up and she wanted to give back, she reached out to us,” Johannes said. “She had a birthday party and instead of celebrating in the traditional way, she had friends bring things kids would need and donated them to the children’s shelter. It is really an outreach of her own experience and her desire that foster kids be cared for and loved.
“She’s a rock star. I am very proud to know her,” Johannes said.
As the event outgrew the Feltz home, the couple moved it to an outside venue. Several years ago, the event switched from collecting donations to raising money for the Salvation Army Center and now for KVC.
Feltz invites foster and shelter children to attend and has fun things for them to do.
“It gives them something to look forward to,” she said.
Feltz and her committee of five women work tirelessly on Midwinter Blues. The event is free, but monetary donations are taken that night. The majority of funds are raised through sponsorships and a silent auction during the event.”
“We knock on people’s doors and beg for things. … I think they just give us things because they feel sorry for us “ she said with a laugh.
Since the fundraiser’s inception in 2004, it has raised more than $90,000 to help children.
KVC Kansas president Chad Anderson said Nicole and Tyler Feltz are special because they have made the conscious decision to be actively involved in the foster care system.
“Nicole and her family see youth in need and make every effort to work at creating health and safety in that family so the children can return home with their family,” Anderson said. “We each have the capacity to do good for our neighbor or our community, but not everyone engages.
“Not only did they become foster parents, but they also made the decision to raise funds and support services to families,” Anderson said. “They are special for so many reasons … and they show us all how we can make a difference in the life of a child,” he said.
Helping abused and neglected children through the foster care system is a calling for Feltz.
“If we can do something to help, we need to,” she said. “We are so blessed. We have a home, we don’t have to worry about where our meals come from and I have a good business,” she said. “You have to be a ripple in water that keeps going. … Hopefully we inspire someone down the road to do something.”
Just weeks before the Midwinter Blues event last month, Feltz’s mother died at the age of 57. Tears welled up in her eyes as she explained that her mother did her best in raising her children.
“My mom wanted to be a good mom, but she couldn’t shake the demons,” she said.
“We always were in touch,” Feltz said. “We would talk every couple of months. It was terribly hard to see how she died. … Addiction just consumed her.”
While the big fundraiser is over for this year, Feltz is as busy as ever. There are meetings with insurance clients, running Grace to her activities, caring for her foster daughter’s needs and spending time with her husband. Regardless of her rapid-paced life, Feltz shares the can-do positive attitude that got her through those dark days of her youth and the compassion others showed her.
“Everyone deserves a chance, and everyone deserves kindness,” Feltz said. “Be kind and be good. … If you want to change things, you have to do something.”
Feltz acknowledges that the foster care system can be very frustrating, but there is hope.
“I am not going to change the entire foster system,” she said, “but I can change that one little life” of her foster daughter, Feltz said.
“Be the change you wish to see, and always be kind because you don’t know what someone is going to throw your way.”