Bob Hill, 76, leans into his cart, loaded to wheel-wobbling capacity, and gives it a shove to start it rolling.
In the halls and waiting rooms and 23 clinics at Children’s Mercy Hospital, he’s known as “the cookie man.”
But his cart bears no cookies. No juice, either. These days the cookie man brings baked wheat crackers, Goldfish and Teddy Grahams, plus milk, water and coffee. Treats for parents and staff, but mostly for the patients.
“Waiting isn’t something kids enjoy,” he says. “Sometimes they get a little unruly and a treat like this will settle them right down.”
Wearing a bright red apron and walking shoes — he puts in four miles or more per shift — he maneuvers his cart to the front of one clinic waiting area.
“Good morning,” he says, smiling at the room full of children and their parents. “Can I get anyone anything? We’ve got crackers and milk. No charge — just come and pick what you want.”
He bends low, eye-level to tykes like 20-month-old Loren Niemann.
“Coo-kees, coo-kees,” Loren chants.
Hill, of Independence, started volunteering 10 years ago. But he’d known since a year earlier that he wanted to help at Children’s Mercy.
His 3-month-old grandson had been sick and died at the hospital, “but everyone here had been so nice, I wanted to help.”
After so many years, families recognize him around town.
“Sometimes I’m in the grocery store and I’ll hear someone say, ‘Hey, there goes the cookie man.’ ”
The 5- and 6-year-olds are all awhirl, seemingly dozens of them settling into reading groups.
Jeannine Smith, 82, and Carolyn “Mi Mi” McCaul, 86, stand in the doorway inside Kansas City’s Faxon Elementary School — “Two gray-headed ladies,” as Smith would say.
“Hi, Ms. Mi Mi!” a boy’s voice sounds out.
The principal had asked Smith and McCaul to help a new class this morning, so a brief sense of unfamiliarity had given them pause as they stood with book bags loaded with the tools of their reading-tutor trade.
But you can’t visit a school every Thursday morning as Smith and McCaul have for — they’re not sure how long, 12 years? — and not see familiar faces.
The boy is 6-year-old Mickey Sutherlin, and he comes to McCaul out of the gaggle of children, first giving her a side-to-side hug. But that doesn’t seem to suit him enough, and so he works around so he is standing in front of her, leaning his back into her, with McCaul’s hands clasped across his chest.
Smith and McCaul are two of some 50 volunteers from Village Presbyterian Church in the YouthFriends program for area schools. The mentors are “the soul of our building,” Faxon Principal Angela Underwood said.
Hands are up across the classroom as teacher Emily LaPlant looks for a child to read with Smith. She picks 5-year-old Sinia Reed, who presents herself to Smith in her navy-blue jumper, her hair in barrettes. A new friend.
“Hi, sweetie,” Smith says.
If you get children reading when they’re young, Smith believes, it’s like a magnet. It keeps them in school.
And McCaul says, “They are so loving. So eager.”
As for picking her first reading partner, McCaul looks at the boy in her arms, then to the teacher.
“Is Mickey OK?” McCaul asks.
“Mickey,” LaPlant says, “would be wonderful.”To volunteer: www.youthfriends.org 10:03 a.m.
They sit in a church library in North Kansas City, one student, two teachers.
Dick Phalen holds a flash card: CH. “Tell me words that start with this sound,” he says.
“Chchachildren?” his student answers.
“That’s right! What kind of building are we in?”
She frowns, then grins: “A church?”
Again and again, Phalen and his wife, Phyllis Stites, encourage their student through her stumblings, praise her successes. They are here because they know the ability to read is like a magic wand, swiping deep toward stopping the cycle of poverty.
Literacy Kansas City gave the couple reading tools and connected them with a motivated student. At least once a week this room echoes with consonants and vowels, laughs and praise and sighs of frustration.
The student, Agot T. Ayouk, 35, from Sudan, is here after struggling for years to stay alive.
When she was 9, her parents pushed her into hiding, saving her life but not their own. She wandered until age 15 along with thousands of other orphaned children in Sudan, crossing deserts, sidestepping danger, seeking safety.
She found it 15 years ago in Kansas City. Yet she will feel like a stranger, she says, until that day when the tiny loops and lines of writing in her new country reveal all their meaning.
Her teachers harbor one simple hope for her: That someday soon she will be able to read about this city, this country, seeing it all in writing, her most favorite word of all:
Home.To volunteer: www.literacykc.org 10:15 a.m.
Jim Hawes peers out at the dozen 3- to 5-year-olds sitting cross-legged on the floor at the Burr Oak Woods Nature Center in Blue Springs.
He can tell they’re really paying attention because every other sentence they interrupt him.
He starts to talk about fish, and a girl in a pink coat bursts to her feet and announces, “The shark is the queen of fish.”
Hawes, 71, laughs.
“I don’t think you’ll find too many sharks in Missouri. But that’s an interesting observation.”
A retired firefighter and lifelong fisherman, Hawes signed up as a volunteer at the nature center 15 years ago.
“This might sound corny, but I believe in paying back debts. I felt I owed the Department of Conservation something because of all the enjoyment I’ve gotten out of fishing and hunting over the years.”
For Hawes, teaching kids about the outdoors is a natural. Last year, he won a national award for his volunteer work.
But he is quick to point out that he is only one of many volunteers making the outdoors come alive at Burr Oak Woods.
“When Jim gives a program, he gets as excited as the kids do,” says Lisa Richter, a paid naturalist at the center. “You can just see the sparkle in his eyes.
“But we have a lot of other volunteers who have that same passion.”To volunteer:
Shelia Gadwood’s on the phone when the woman comes in, looking nervously around Missys’ Boutique at the University of Kansas Cancer Center.
For a while now, Mary Conn has been wondering about a wig. She’s been cancer-free for a year and her hair has started to grow back, but it’s much thinner and finer.
“I’ve never worn one,” she says shyly, eyes on the ground.
She’s come to a place where there’s no need to be nervous or embarrassed.
The volunteers here know cancer. Marilyn Laddish, 75, who’s working alongside Gadwood, is a breast cancer survivor going on seven years. The boutique itself is a tribute to two women named Missy who lost their lives to cancer.
And Gadwood, 62, a meticulously dressed woman from Platte City, has three family members who’ve survived cancer and two who have died, including her daughter Sandy, who was diagnosed with lung cancer when she was 41 and died four months later.
Several hours each week, Gadwood comes to the shop to give back to the hospital that cared for her family. She also volunteers for her daughter, who Gadwood says was a helper who often brought home stray dogs.
“She’d want me to help other people going through what she did,” Gadwood says. “I feel wonderful being here. I feel like when patients come in and they’re depressed or sad or having a bad day, I can make them feel a little better — I’ve been there.”
Already this morning, she’s trimmed one patient’s wig and helped another patient try on scarves. And now she has Conn in the chair.
First one Raquel Welch wig, then another. Conn laughs, tilting her head and glancing in the mirror.
“This color is a good color,” Gadwood says. “Look how good that looks.”
This is what Gadwood does. She turns an apprehensive woman battling leukemia into a giggling schoolgirl wondering whether to go daring or more conservative.
“My husband doesn’t know I’m doing this,” Conn says. “I’m just not a vain person; I never have been.”
Gadwood smiles, nods. No need for Conn to say more. She understands.More information:
Richard Fitzsimmons eases the white Ford van onto the ramp to northbound Interstate 29, peeks into his side mirror and punches the accelerator.
Another Thursday, another trip to St. Joseph.
Fitzsimmons, who goes by Fitz, hauls life-saving pints of blood for the Community Blood Center, 4040 Main St. He makes deliveries to hospitals in Kansas City, Lee’s Summit, North Kansas City and Kansas City, North.
Then he makes pickups in St. Joseph and Gladstone before returning to 4040 Main.
Fitz, of Kansas City, North, is one of about 60 volunteer couriers. He does more than drive — he’s also donated 15 gallons over the years.
“I have lived a pretty good life and the cards have always been favorable and this is a way for me to give back,” says Fitz, 76, who retired from TWA 20 years ago.
He takes a few weeks off to go on cruises with his wife, so he figures he makes about 48 trips a year to St. Joseph.
“I have come to know I-29 fairly well by now.”To volunteer:
Inside the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Lindsey Baker and her 8-month-old daughter Ruby Sellergren are making history.
They’ve just become the first passengers on Ed Crawford’s Shuttlecart.
The white, electric-powered Shuttlecarts are new at the Nelson; driven by volunteers, they’ll provide a free service that starts with the opening of the Water Lilies exhibit April 9. They’re quiet, except when backing, when they make a warning hum.
One Shuttlecart will make the loop on the first floor, stopping at Kirkwood Hall and the Rozelle Court restaurant. The other cart will traverse the Bloch Building’s 400-foot-long gallery walk.
“Museum visitors complain about the long walk, especially older guys like me,” Crawford says.
Mother and child’s 5 mph ride ends a minute later outside the Bloch Building café. Elementary students walk by.
“The best part about this is seeing all the kids,” says Crawford, who has seven grandchildren. “It’s never too early to plant the seeds of art.”To volunteer: