The food is hot and the company warm inside St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Kan., on Saturday mornings.
Several dozen people from the surrounding neighborhood and a nearby homeless camp tend to be regular guests for the weekly breakfast provided by Metro Lutheran Ministry. A table with a sign that says “Alice’s Closet” holds free warm clothing from Blessings Abound thrift store in Overland Park. Members of Holy Cross Lutheran in Overland Park serve food and visit with guests.
The simple event points to the heart of an organization that has spent 45 years helping those with the most dire needs in the Kansas City area.
Leaders at the ministry are now taking on the challenge of helping the poorest of the poor build long-term stability. The initiative started in downtown Kansas City, Mo., and will expand this year with a new facility now under construction in the Northland, and services soon to be available in Wyandotte County.
The organization’s leaders say a strong staff and generous donors have helped provide for the practical needs of people through the years. Metro Lutheran Ministry has 35 member churches throughout the ministry that provide volunteer and financial help. The organization logged more than 16,000 hours of volunteer help in 2015.
Every person who walks in the door has a different need, and it’s the organization’s mission to meet that need, said Metro Lutheran Ministry board president Harold Boxberger.
“MLM doesn’t have unlimited resources to serve everyone who walks in, but MLM has a network (where) we try to help find that person help,” Boxberger said.
Metro Lutheran Ministry has used the resources it does have to help create a number of other organizations to help the poor. The most well-known, perhaps, is Harvesters Food Bank, which was founded in 1979. Today that organization extends into a 16-county service area and, according to its website, works with 620 partner agencies to feed more than 140,000 people a month.
Metro Lutheran Ministry also was involved in the development of Parvin Estates, a 300-unit apartment complex that includes Section 8 housing near Hidden Valley Park and Interstate 435. The organization also started Kansas City Community Gardens and supports Grace Homes, Project CARE Permanent Housing and Luther Johnson Homes. The housing helps the chronically homeless and those with disabilities.
Metro Lutheran Ministry has focused for decades on meeting emergency needs, but it is now focusing on teaching people how to become self-sufficient.
The ministry is starting to provide long-term services to help people stay out of the hard times through case management. In the past, the ministry has been able to offer some case management, but the services have been driven by grant money, which limits what the organization is able to do and usually is only available for a limited time. Thanks to funding from the community, the program is now sustainable long-term.
The case management model includes teaching financial literacy, helping clients learn to manage money, make meals and build emergency fund savings accounts. The initiative is aimed at breaking the multigenerational cycle of poverty by teaching people how to make and achieve long-term goals for future stability.
Metro Lutheran Ministry executive director Jim Glynn explains that the goal is to work with people for five years, enough time to help them become stable.
“We are committing to this model long-term,” Glynn said. “It is going to be an integral part of our programming going forward.”
This five-year vision, which is called the Family Empowerment Initiative, aims to spend more time with clients than previous programs the organization has tried.
Starla Brennan, operations director for Metro Lutheran Ministry, explains a key component of the program is helping people plan strategies for success.
The model is an outgrowth of a grant through the United Way from the Siemer Institute for Family Stability. That program’s goal is to help families stay in one place, so kids can stay in one school. The Siemer program offers life skills and other supports to help people stay out of homelessness. Brennan said they saw the plan work and decided to make a similar strategy a permanent part of their regular funding.
“I think we just were sad to not see progress; we were sad to see the same people over and over again,” Brennan said. “There was so much more we wanted to do for the community. We knew we were just putting Band-Aids on the situation.”
The Learning to Earning program, which started in January 2013, also aims to help people with long-term goals. Through the program, participants earn a GED certification, reassess their job skills, build resumes and connect to new jobs. In December 2014, the Learning to Earning program expanded into downtown Kansas City, Kan. Plans are for the program to expand in the Northland facility within the year.
Stephen Barbee, the program manager at the downtown Learning to Earning initiative, has worked at several social service organizations.
“A lot of organizations are helping, but they pick and choose who they help,” he says. “But here at Metro Lutheran Ministry I see day in and day out people getting connected to services they need. To have the liberty to invest in people’s lives — that’s what I enjoy doing.”
For those who need help, barriers to employment could include simple things like lack of access to a phone or the Internet to assist in applying for jobs. Help might be a bus pass to get to work, the appropriate clothing to start a job, or help obtaining a birth certificate or health exam.
Kansas City, Kan., resident Alvin Martin, who attends the free breakfasts, also has used the organization’s services to get a birth certificate. That certificate helped him get an ID, essential in applying for services, jobs and even housing.
“They can help you, get you hooked up just like that,” Martin said, noting that the organization has helped him financially get through hard times. “A lot of times you get your hopes up high and get let down. They won’t let you down. That’s a great deal of pressure off your mind.”
A long bridge-like deck stretches from the parking lot of St. James Lutheran Church to a modest house that serves as a makeshift office space for one of the seven emergency assistance facilities Metro Lutheran Ministry runs in the metro area. The Northland location of Metro Lutheran Ministry on Vivion Road has been serving the poor north of the Missouri River for more than 30 years.
Jeani Wells is one of two staff members at the Vivion Road location, which serves as both office and food pantry. Wells has stories about many of the people who have come through for help over the years. One woman, she said, came first as a recent prison parolee trying to find transportation to a new job and rent assistance. Years later, she came back to donate to the program that helped get her on her feet.
That’s the kind of happy ending Wells tries hard to replicate — particularly for veterans for whom she has a soft spot. Too often, she says, she does not have the time or resources to know how the stories end.
That could soon change when the new center is finished. Construction started in early December and is expected to be completed in May on a facility three times the size of the current center. Plans for the space include a job center, a much more convenient and spacious food pantry, space to teach cooking classes and a case manager who will work with people on a long-term basis.
Wells explains the new facility is needed because she has seen poverty steadily grow in the Northland.
“Thirty years ago, when I started here, volunteers would come in with books because it would be slow,” Wells said. “Today, you never see that. We are just so busy all the time.”
Serving the poor and homeless north of the river is a unique challenge as the area is large and few organizations offer assistance. The public transportation system is limited and difficult to navigate. It may take several hours and may require people to go miles out of their way to get where they need to go. In Clay County, public transportation into downtown Liberty, where someone may have to go to sign up for food stamps, may take all day.
“I have people in Smithville who have to drive here for a food pantry,” Wells said, adding that those with no transportation or gasoline money may go without food. “It worries me.”
Although there are plenty of homeless, including those in camps, the organization also serves a lot of two-parent households that have slipped into poverty with the loss of a job or other crisis. Wells also points out there is little low-income housing and no homeless shelter north of the river.
These challenges require an attitude of partnership between the agencies offering services in the area.
“If the Salvation Army has a client and they are going to help with rent, they might say they have a portion of it,” Wells said. “We might be able to match their help. We pull together to help the client to get through.”
Glynn echoes the fact that the organization is collaborative.
“We are not all things to all people by any means,” Glynn said. “We collaborate and are good friends with a lot of other agencies.”
One of the collaborative efforts is with the Blessings Abound Thrift Store in Overland Park. Metro Lutheran Ministry started the store with Lutheran Urban Mission Agency about eight years ago.
The store now operates as its own nonprofit and donates a significant portion of its proceeds back to Metro Lutheran Ministry, as well as other charitable organizations around town. Those funds provide some of the discretionary funds that give the organization flexibility to help special-needs clients. Blessings Abound also provides a source for furnishings for the homeless clients under the care of Metro Lutheran Ministry.
Gerald and Alice Petersen of Holy Cross Lutheran are two of the many volunteers who come weekly to help with the breakfast in Kansas City, Kan.
Alice, of “Alice’s Closet,” loads up seven large bags of clothes from Blessings Abound to bring to the breakfast each week.
“We have all these people right here in our backyard,” Alice Petersen said. “I feel like they need it. I want to keep them warm.”
Gerald Petersen points to the sense of community the breakfast offers people who often are alone.
“A lot of these people don’t have anyone to talk to,” he said. “A lot of them are alone and they get acquainted with different people here at the breakfasts.”
Who was helped in 2015
▪ 63 households received year-long case management, a 230 percent increase over 2014.
▪ 1,124 individuals sought assistance from the Learning to Earning program.
▪ 1,605 volunteers provided more than 16,000 hours of service.
▪ 566 households received utility assistance (gas, electricity, and water).
▪ 268 households received housing assistance, preventing them from having to face homelessness (rent, deposits, and temporary lodging).
▪ 812 families received gifts blankets, Bibles and food at the Metro Lutheran Ministry Christmas Store.
▪ 5,901 households, including 3,564 children, received food from Metro Lutheran Ministry food pantries.