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In a holiday surprise, couple gets keys to house in Jackson County

“I want to live here forever,” said Ranyah Wilson, 4, as she played Monday at her family’s new home, which they received through the sixth Jackson County Constructing Futures home giveaway.
“I want to live here forever,” said Ranyah Wilson, 4, as she played Monday at her family’s new home, which they received through the sixth Jackson County Constructing Futures home giveaway. The Kansas City Star

A free house with all new appliances and presents under the Christmas tree. Anyone would feel blessed.

But after all they’ve been through, Pamela St. John and James Ponder were stunned when Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders handed them the keys to their new front door Monday afternoon.

“This has been such a long journey for us,” St. John said as a roomful of strangers applauded and, like her, choked back tears at the Nutter Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center. “It’s so surreal.”

Four years ago, they were homeless, unemployed and living in a shelter. Now both are working full time, St. John at Truman Medical Center and Ponder at the Missouri Department of Transportation.

And after a stint in transitional housing where their rent was subsidized, the couple, their two sons — 15-year-old Jaaron and 9-year-old Josiah — and granddaughter Ranyah, 4, have been renting a place since last summer. It’s nice — but now they have a place they can call their own.

It will be theirs, free and clear, after seven years as long as they pay the property takes and keep it insured.

“It ends homelessness, one house at a time,” said former county legislator James Tindall.

This is the sixth rehabbed house that county government has donated to a needy family since Sanders established the Constructing Futures program five years ago.

Every Christmas season, Sanders usually surprises the lucky applicant in a ceremony much like Monday’s at the Nutter Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center.

Four of the six have been in Ivanhoe, an east-side neighborhood where as many as 40 percent of the residential parcels are vacant lots or are blighted by empty, dilapidated houses.

As many as 800 houses fit that description in Ivanhoe. Now there’s one fewer on that list, much to neighborhood leader Margaret May’s pleasure.

“Getting people into these houses is at the top of our list,” she said.

Habitat for Humanity built the three-bedroom house at 35th Street and Flora Avenue in 1997. The family who lived there couldn’t hang onto it, so it ended up back in Habitat’s hands and sat empty for years.

Scrappers broke in and stole the wiring. Squatters set up camp and trashed it further.

By the time the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council took title a couple of years ago, the house was a total wreck, county senior administrative manager Lisa Honn said.

Morgan Jacobs General Contracting of Sugar Creek oversaw the reconstruciton work, much of it done by five former prison inmates.

They got on-the-job training that should help them get work in the construction industry, said Brad Lambert, who runs a job skills program called Connecting to Success.

Now after $40,000 in repairs paid for with county tax dollars, it looks brand new, with a new swingset in the front yard.

“That’s yours!” Ponder called out as Ranyah grabbed for the rings.

The play equipment, like the appliances and other materials, was donated. Among the benefactors: Meyers Brothers Building Co., the Lathrop & Gage law firm, Clean Energy, Home Depot and Operation Breakthrough.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738 or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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