Mercedes-Benz of Kansas City offers a unified team environment, great benefits, and ongoing training, and support for its employees. Previous automotive sales experience is preferred but not required. Apply today or refer a qualified friend. You can apply by visiting the following Web site at www.soaveautomotivegroup.com/careers or you can respond directly to this ad with your resume. We look forward to hearing from you!
photos by ANDREW FAILS
The Kansas City Auto Show took the stage at Bartle Hall in downtown Kansas City a little earlier than usual this year, because opening night was February 28. From the opening to the closing on Sunday, March 4, the brands that we represent were on display.
The Auto Show this year could boast a 15-percent increase in attendance from the previous year, and the Bartle Convention Hall housed over 435 cars on display to the automotive aficionado.
From the 16-car Mercedes-Benz display, through Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover, Maserati, and Mercedes-Benz Commercial Vans, the display, supported by Aristocrat Motors and Mercedes-Benz of Kansas City, was once again the star of the show.
“This is an annual event that showcases the retail automotive industry in the Kansas City market, and we are proud to be able to represent the very best of that market with our brands and our associates,” stated Marion Battaglia, president of the Soave Automotive Group. “This year the work our staff did at the show and the quality of our exhibits were actually recognized as ‘Best-in- Show’ by the people who counted the most, the show visitors.”
by KELSEY CIPOLLA | photos courtesy of PHOENIX FAMILY
There are no cookie-cutter solutions at Phoenix Family. Instead, staff is on site working on thoughtful, personalized solutions for residents every day at the 35 properties the organization partners with in service of Phoenix Family’s mission: Empowering people living in low-income housing communities with the support they need to gain stability and achieve self-sufficiency.
“What that means for each of our individual residents can be very different, because one of the things we really pride ourselves on is that we are meeting people where they are, and that can be a high level of self-sufficiency, or it could be they were previously homeless or near homelessness,” says Executive Director Kimber Myers Givner.
Residents are facing steep challenges. In the Kansas City area, the wait for affordable multi-family housing is two to three years, and the average yearly income of the households Phoenix Family serves is $6,900, well below the federal poverty level for even an individual.
When people move into a residential community that Phoenix Family serves, they become eligible for the organization’s services, which are facilitated by an onsite coordinator. In multi-family communities, the heads of the household may need helping furnishing their new apartment, developing career skills to help them find a job or get a better job, learning about financial literacy, or finding a path to getting their GED. Phoenix Family also provides home education, which covers subjects like housekeeping and parenting.
For kids, Phoenix Family offers a free literacy-based after-school program called HIKE. Children who enter the program are tested in five core areas and receive a curriculum specific to their needs. An onsite reading specialist and volunteers work with kids on the areas that need improvement. The program also supplies participants with a meal.
In senior living communities, programming is focused on balanced living, which includes mental and physical health, providing residents with home help services and helping them navigate Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Every site has blood pressure and blood sugar screenings once a month in case people aren’t able to get to their doctors, and fresh produce is delivered monthly, since many communities are in food deserts, and seniors may not have access to transportation.
If it sounds like Phoenix Family works on an almost staggering number of fronts to help residents, it’s because that’s what is required, Myers Givner says.
“I wish there was one thing that if everybody did it, he or she wouldn’t be in poverty, but it’s a multitude of factors,” Myers Givner explains.
Over her 20 years with the organization, Myers Givner says she’s met many residents who she could relate to, people who were successful and then lost everything.
“One of the things overall that I wish people knew was that nobody wants to live in poverty. It’s not something somebody really chooses,” she says. “At many times, choices might lead to that, but a person also may have not been equipped from the very beginning either from an education standpoint, from a professional standpoint, a literacy standpoint, to have those tools in his or her toolbox to be successful.”
And although we might not notice it, poverty exists in our own backyard, Myers Givner says, noting that Phoenix House has communities throughout the metro, including in Johnson County, as well as in Iowa.
In total, Phoenix Family serves 6,000 residents each day, despite having an annual budget of only $3 million and 57 employees across all program sites as well as in the home office. Because of the organization’s small staff size, volunteers play a vital role.
“Volunteers are so critical to the success of our programs, not only on the youth and the family side, but also the senior side,” Myers Givner says.
Volunteers are given the chance to help the organization in a way that fits with their personal interests and goals and work directly with residents so they get to see firsthand the difference their efforts make. Those personal connections between volunteers, staff, and residents are a big part of what makes Phoenix Family successful. Relationships often continue even after residents move out and move on, allowing Phoenix Family to see how they go on to thrive.
Myers Givner warmly recalls watching one of the kids she worked with early on in her career give a commencement speech at her graduation. Others check in, telling her about buying homes, graduating college, and their other adventures.
“Those successes, that we’re connected to people even after they’ve exited poverty, that is amazing,” she says. “A lot of programs are very temporary and very transitional. I think what’s unique about Phoenix is that we’re so invested in their lives on site, that even when they’ve left the property, we continue those relationships.”
by STACY DOWNS | photos by ANNA PETROW
The slooooow start to the season has us pondering this question: What should you add to your home to shoo away blah weather and make it feel fresh like spring year-round?
The antidote and the answer: Houseplants!
However, most of us aren’t born with a green thumb. Sure, we could help solve that problem by reading one of the many books on the topic, but to make it easy on ourselves, we called an expert.
Jaclyn Joslin, Kansas City interior designer and owner of Coveted Home, has us covered. She fills her Country Club Plaza store as well as her clients’ homes and her personal abode with smartly placed plants.
“A place without plants looks like no one lives or works there,” Joslin says. “Just a few plants can change the feeling of a space. They bring it to life.”
Yes, there is such thing as a trendy type of houseplant. No doubt in the past few years, you’ve seen succulents. Everywhere. Even the grocery store.
“They’ll always be popular because they’re pretty low-maintenance,” Joslin says. “But a lot of people think you don’t have to water them. And even though they require a lot less water than most plants, they still do need some water and attention.”
Joslin waters her succulents every week or two.
This year, sculptural plants are taking center stage. Think the ones with the large fan-like leaves, such as banana trees or palms.
The most popular of the popular, though, is the split-leaf philodendron (Monstera deliciosa) with its heartshaped leaves that can reach more than a foot long and wide. As the leaves mature, they develop holes in the center that eventually elongate all the way to the edge of the leaf, splitting the leaf into smaller sections.
TRIED, TESTED, AND TRUE
If you’re looking for simple beyond succulents, Joslin suggests a pothos plant (Epipremnum aureum).
“They’re perfect for the office because if the leaves wilt if you forget about them for a while, they will pop right back up with a little water,” she says. “They’re a very popular plant, but beware: pothos is toxic if ingested by children or pets.”
Joslin also likes snake plants (Sansevieria). They don’t need much light or water – just water once every few weeks.
Another easy-peasy type is a rubber plant (Ficus elastica).
“It is versatile, and can do low or high light and is low maintenance in terms of watering,” she says.
The plant is so low-maintenance that Joslin waters only once every two weeks.
If you’re looking for a challenge…
Joslin often gets compliments from clients and customers on the showy fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) at Coveted Home.
The fiddle-leaf fig is one of those tall, sculptural numbers you see on magazine covers. Its leaves are shaped like violins — that’s how it earned its name. Its waxy, dark, dramatic foliage provides a striking contrast to the light walls of sun-filled rooms.
“They’re popular, but I don’t recommend them to everyone,” she says. “They need a lot of sun and they don’t like to be moved. A lot of people end up killing them because they do take a lot of responsibility.”
But, in their defense, they are stunning.
There’s typically a plant in nearly each room Joslin designs:
• In the kitchen on counters and open shelving.
• In the living room on a coffee table.
• In the office on a desk.
• In a bedroom next to a dresser.
“Plants make good endcaps for bigger pieces of furniture,” she says.
Joslin loves adding tall plants to a room for height variation.
“They get bigger than your floor lamps,” she says. “It’s a great way to take your eye up and across the room.”
In rooms without much floor space, Joslin hangs plants from the ceiling.
Plants also can provide the panacea to odd nooks and crannies.
“There was a spot next to a fireplace that looked so dead,” she says. “I put a plant there and it finished that corner.”
Besides making a room look better, plants help a room feel good, too. They’re natural air purifiers, removing pollutants by absorbing them through their leaves and roots.
So after the disruption of construction in Joslin’s home, her plants provided an aesthetically pleasing and serene source of comfort.
by PATRICIA O’DELL | photos by TOM STYRKOWICZ
Can you smell the ocean? Feel the sand between your toes? Maybe hear the rhythm of the waves? Lina Dickinson and Melanie Bolin, founders of Mer-Sea, a line of products inspired by the sea can, even when they are home in Kansas City.
“We are travelers,” says Bolin. “Sometimes we are actually traveling and sometimes we are just tapping into that mindset.” Business partners for over five years, both women lived in California before moving to Kansas City for their husbands’ careers. Once they were settled and had their children in the groove of school and activities, they realized that they had similar dreams.
Bolin and Dickinson were interested in starting a business and both still felt a strong connection to the ocean, though they were happily planted in the Midwest. They agreed that the sea would be their muse. It may have seemed a curious plan for partners who were landlocked.
“One of our biggest advantages is that we are not by a beach,” says Bolin. “That gives us the gift of focus.”
The friends remember how elementary starting the business was. With backgrounds in product development, business, and sales, they had solid skills and experience. The creative essence of the company was built on instinct. They began developing scents, testing formulas, and making decisions about packaging. Then they began to market.
“It makes me laugh now,” says Bolin. “We didn’t even have an accountant then, and I was processing orders. I wasn’t even using a ledger. I just had this notebook and I’d write down the 24 orders and cross them off one by one as we filled them.”
Specialty retailers began to find Mer-Sea through their website and word of mouth. Soon there was an accountant and significantly more than 24 orders. The business was growing and Mer-Sea hired sales reps to handle their nationwide accounts. Then they had a big surprise.
“Anthropologie found us,” says Dickinson. “It wasn’t in our vision that we were ready for that.”
In fact, the upscale, cool-girl boutique with stores nationwide sought them out and wanted them to develop a collection exclusively for the brand.
“Anthropologie is known for building small businesses,” say Bolin. “We have ongoing storylines with them, and they have really raised the bar on creativity for us.”
As the business enters its sixth year, the partners talk of Mer-Sea like another child.
“We talk about it growing up,” says Bolin. “In the beginning, everything that happened was perfect, like a baby’s first smile.” “Then we hit the terrible twos,” she remembers, laughing.
“But even now, as the business is older, it’s still like parenting. We are learning to let go. We have to let other people do their thing.”
Each woman is grateful to have the collaboration.
“Our desks are side-by-side. We text each other in the evenings. It works so well to have two people involved in the decision-making process. One may hesitate and the other can see that we are ready,” says Bolin.
“The dialogue moves us forward,” Dickinson agrees.
“Sometimes when we’re busy and both on the phones, Lina will just push her chair back and say, ‘This is awesome!’ It’s a great energy,” says Bolin.
Dickinson admits that there are challenges.
“Balance is difficult. It takes so much time and energy. Whatever I have left goes to my family, so my poor friends get shortchanged. Sometimes I’m not sure if I have any friends left, “ she says, laughing.
She is, however, adapting.
“I didn’t know if there would ever be a time when I wasn’t involved with everything. But, as we have grown, I have been able to let amazing people around me take things off my plate.”
The partners – and the business – continue to move forward. As Mer-Sea grows, Bolin and Dickinson understand that expansion may come in different directions.
“Some of it people tell you – what they want to see – either verbally or through sales,” says Bolin.
While Mer-Sea has been successful in fragrance and home goods, the company is expanding the travel mindset to include soft goods like a broader line of travel wraps, new bags, and jewelry.
“We’re starting to have conversations about where that may take us,” says Dickinson.
Still, the devil is in the details. Bolin is responsible for product design and she’s focused – and excited – by small details that make the products stand out. It’s important to both women that they are constantly learning, doing interesting things, and engaged in the world around them. They are creating product for people who see the world in the same way.
“We are discovering new things, seeing what is possible that a short time ago wasn’t in our view,” says Bolin. “It’s a traveler’s mindset.” .
To find Mer-Sea products at retailers near you or to shop online, visit mersea.com.
words by EMILY & STEWART LANE | photos by ANNA PETROW
Warmth and comfort. Style and innovation. One might think these things couldn’t possibly overlap in one dining experience, yet Black Dirt has found a way to coalesce these disparate elements. From the team that brought us Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Missouri, Chef Jonathan Justus, a James Beard Award nominee, and Camille Eklof, have added to the food landscape in midtown with the opening of their second restaurant.
EL: They say the best things are grown in the black dirt of Missouri. Chef Justus is taking this notion to heart with his new restaurant located in the 51 Main building just south of the Plaza. Upon arriving, one can tell there are various pockets of space in which to dine, each offering a distinctive environment. We were led into a room of small tables, all housed under an incredible art piece they referred to as their “tree sculpture,” which is exactly as it sounds and more. Twisted and tangled roots interspersed with industrial lights set the stage for our evening.
SL: When Emily and I dined here for the first time, there were so many tantalizing items on the menu, and we wanted to try as many dishes as possible, so we opted to dine off the small-plates menu. But before we had our first bite, we had our first experience. Our charming and well-informed server, Tony, brought me an Erlenmeyer flask filled with a bourbon cocktail and cherrywood smoke. The stopper was removed releasing smoke and the cocktail gently into my glass. A quick “cheers,” as we enjoyed our drinks and snacked on the house-made “29-Hour Bread” with Shatto butter.
EL: The bar menu is impressive and filled with craft-cocktail creativity, just like Stewart described. There is also a well-curated wine list with plenty of wine-by-the-glass options. Naturally, there are Missouri wines featured. This local emphasis is prominent throughout the menu, and we loved seeing the black-garlic paste from Kansas City Canning Co. used in the small-plate shrimp special we enjoyed near the beginning of our meal.
SL: Chef Justus shows a mastery of techniques and flavor profiles with each dish. The pecan pear salad with compressed pear, spiced pecans, and apple cracklin’s was a clean and refreshing introduction to our meal. In contrast, the Missouri Caesar with brûléed romaine and catfish croutons was made even more special by the signature dressing: house-dried trout replacing the anchovies, creating a much lighter and more balanced flavor.
EL: None of these dishes are fussy or ostentatious. While beautiful on the plate, I never hesitated to dive right in, and mess things up a bit. Upon receiving the picturesque duck-egg fettuccine with crispy wild mushrooms, crème fraiche, arugula, and lemon zest, Tony instructed us to “…mix it all up! It’s much better that way.” Indeed, he was correct.
SL: Our server aptly guided us through the menu, as there were many dishes wecouldn’t resist trying. Duck confit fritters topped with beet-pickled cabbage and a butternut squash and malted-barley puree were crispy outside, rich and soft inside, with the acidity of the pickled cabbage to cut the fat, while the sauce added the final element to round out the dish. The octopus was not only texturally perfect, snappy outside but soft inside, but the high flavor notes of radish, red onion, greengoddess dressing, and perfectly crisp acidulated potatoes created an amazing flavor journey from start to finish.
EL: At the conclusion of our meal, just when we were convinced another bite wasn’t possible, Tony suggested the flourless chocolate torte with a banana and chocolate-chip ice cream and strawberry sauce. As a woman who is five-months pregnant, it didn’t take much persuading for me to indulge. And it was worth every bite. That’s a good way to summarize the whole experience at Black Dirt; every taste is purposeful, well executed, and more delicious than your last forkful. We’ll be back soon… perhaps for the entrée menu, perhaps for the bar menu. Either way, Black Dirt is perfect for any occasion, big or small.
A project architect in HOK’s Kansas City office, Tony McGrail is a lead designer for a proposed expansion of the Nile Valley Aquaponics urban farm. Nile Valley represents an innovative and sustainable model of producing fresh, healthy food while also rebuilding a community and mentoring at-risk youth. Here, McGrail discusses how community impact and architecture merge – and why he believes in Nile Valley’s grassroots mission to nourish our city.
First of all, what is aquaponics?
The simple definition is that it’s the symbiotic relationship of growing plant and animal life together. In the case of Nile Valley Aquaponics, the animals are fish, specifically tilapia, and the plants are fruits and vegetables. The fish generate waste that is used to fertilize and feed the plants. The plants filter water and return it to the fish. Nile Valley’s name comes from Egypt, where the Nile River has nourished life for millions of years in this natural process.
Tell us a bit about Nile Valley and its mission and purpose in Kansas City.
Nile Valley is the brainchild of Dre Taylor. Dre is a civic activist who a few years ago founded Males 2 Men, an organization that provides mentorship to kids growing up in and around the East Side of Kansas City. This part of the city is historically black and impoverished with a preponderance of crime. Dre was born in the neighborhood and has committed his life to trying to improve it for future generations, with Nile Valley being an extension of that. The neighborhood is also what is known as an urban food desert, with very few options for those seeking nutritious and healthy food. With Nile Valley Aquaponics, Dre is now producing tens of thousands of pounds of fresh fruit and fish, as well as jobs and education for those in the community.
How did you get involved in assisting Dre in his efforts?
Dre’s Nile Valley endeavor has come a long way from the school basement where it started. The property where it now sits was largely abandoned and primarily owned by the city’s land bank and a not-for-profit. As Dre worked with those entities to acquire the property, he began to fix up the land. His efforts got some publicity in the local news, which generated a buzz. Around this same time, I was involved in a leadership program with the Kansas City chapter of the AIA, Pillars. I was fascinated with Dre’s story and reached out to him to see if our program could do a charrette that could provide him with concepts for Nile Valley. We spent a half day touring the property and working with him, creating a handful of sketches. Dre was like, “This is great! Can you do some more?” So I brought it up to the HOK leadership team here in Kansas City.
What was the reaction from the Kansas City team?
They were a little skeptical at first. Designing farms that operate on fish-water is not exactly an established HOK practice area or market. Not to mention, aquaponics was a fairly new concept to many. But they quickly realized the many layers of this project, especially when it comes to sustainability and community. So we agreed to provide some pro bono renderings and designs that might help Dre and his vision to expand the farm. And since we’ve become involved, we’re now exploring how this type of sustainable food production could be part of other project types, such as stadiums, mixed-use developments, health-care facilities, airport terminals, and commercial office spaces as a way to provide people with access to fresh food. What started here in Kansas City has the potential to change communities across the world.
Tell us about your plan for Nile Valley. Did you have to study up on agricultural design beforehand?
The concept of aquaponics was not completely foreign to me or my HOK colleagues on the project – Jake Baker and J.J. Nicolas. We all graduated from the Kansas State architecture program, where we studied aquaponics as part of our environmental systems class. What I hadn’t seen before was an aquaponics system like what is used in a greenhouse on the scale that Nile Valley does it. And I have to say, what he’s done with limited resources and support is amazing. They’ve dug three trenches (much of it by hand!) that are 100 feet long and deep enough (6 feet) that they provide geothermal warmth in the winter. His greenhouses are made of plastic tarps that, in colder months, he covers with a transparent black cover to capture solar heat gain and keep the indoor temperature a balmy 60- to 80-degrees Fahrenheit. Our design opens up the site, making it transparent and welcoming to the community. We want it to be a place where people can hold events and where kids can come and learn about farming and food. It proposes new, permanent greenhouses, additional community grow beds, and repurposing the shipping container presently on site into a market and store. We envision that the expansion could double the amount of food currently grown on the site and ensure it remains a beacon for sustainable living in a neighborhood most in need.
What’s next for Nile Valley Aquaponics?
Dre and Nile Valley are in the middle of a capital campaign for the expansion, with two parallel organizational entities being formed. One would maintain nonprofit community outreach and educational programming and another would make the food production a for-profit entity. This would allow them to accept both investor and philanthropic capital as well as grants and alternative funding.
by KELSEY CIPOLLA | photos courtesy of SIDELINES CUSTOM FLORAL DESIGNS
Karyn Brooke, founder of Sidelines Custom Floral Designs, has one simple piece of advice for decorating your home for the holidays.
“When you walk in, it should make you happy,” she says. Of course, that’s a good guiding principle when it comes to choosing your décor any time of year, but it feels especially appropriate during a season filled with so many memories and traditions.
DECKING THE HALLS
The florist and design pro, who decorates both residential and commercial spaces for the holidays, says some of the clients she works with are starting from scratch, while others may have favorite pieces they want to incorporate into their festive décor. Regardless of where you’re beginning the decorating process, keep basic design principles in mind, she advises. The style of your home can help you determine the aesthetic that will work best, and pay attention to your physical space – high ceilings call for a bigger Christmas tree, for instance. Your decorations may also depend on your household.
“If you have a house with little kids, you’re going to want bright colors and fun things and snowmen; those things they just love to look at,” Brooke says. For couples who find themselves with an empty nest for the first time, a more refined look might be called for.
Aim to highlight pieces you love, whether they’re family treasures or new finds, and don’t feel constrained by a traditional holiday color palette. Consider playing off colors present in your everyday décor for an unexpected look that works with your existing pieces, she says. Homes decorated in more neutral tones can serve as the perfect backdrop for punchier colors, or stay in line with your home’s aesthetic and opt for elegant all-white decorations or white and silver items. Gold has also made a major comeback in the last few years.
Brooke says garland lights are gaining popularity, too. The strands, which consist of many tiny lights bundled together, provide major visual impact and can be used inside or out, Brooke notes.
GO GREEN AND TAKE IT EASY
“I love the incorporation of real holiday plants in with artificial because the vast majority of people don’t do fresh trees,” Brooke says. “Arrangements of fresh-cut greens get that fragrance throughout the house, which is awesome, and that can be something that you do a week or two before Christmas.”
Blooming amaryllis is a favorite for the season, along with paperwhite narcissus and poinsettias, which are now being grown in unusual colors, she adds.
Since the most wonderful time of the year often ends up being the most hectic time of the year for many of us, plants or small touches like simple garlands or decorative bundles on nightstand tables can serve as a fun change to your day-to-day style without requiring much effort, Brooke says. And don’t underestimate the power of introducing a seasonal fragrance, be it through scented candles or potpourri.
Decorating for the winter season rather than the holidays can also help save time and prevent stress. Brooke notes taking a more general approach and adding accents like trendy blue and white jars and snow-covered branches provide a fresh look with a longer life – so you can enjoy the New Year rather than worrying about taking down nowout- of-season items.
Perhaps the most significant way to quickly add a dose of holiday cheer is to focus on your tree, whether it’s a table-top model or a creatively decorated artificial tree.
“You can take a plain green tree and fill it with Christmas lights, you can put some fake snow on the branches, you can add snowball arrangements, you can add silver, you can add crystal, you can add any of those things and it would be very simple and change a room,” Brooke says.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
In her own home, Brooke says each room has its own personality for the holidays. The dining room is more vintage while her living room has a Western feel because of its year-round décor. The spaces are tied together with ornaments.
“I like glass ornaments – the more color, the more detail, the older they are, the more they make me happy,” she says. Her tree is gold wire and adorned with treasured ornaments passed down from her mother.
Brooke’s collection of vintage reindeer also has sentimental roots. Every year, her father would buy her mother a centerpiece decorated with the red velvet reindeers with silver glitter antlers and noses from a flower shop on Troost Avenue, and Brooke’s mother saved many of them over the years.
“It just reminds me of my dad coming home and making my mom so happy with a Christmas centerpiece,” she says.
Incorporating those cherished items can be what makes a house feel like home during the holidays, and there’s always a way to tie them into your décor, she says, whether it’s by surrounding them with greenery or grouping several items together with glass balls and other seasonal accents.
“Everybody’s Christmas is so different, and the options are just endless,” Brooke says. “I think that’s the fun.”
by ROBERT HELLWEG
It is well documented that Kansas City is a philanthropic city; our residents support great causes and initiatives. In doing research on nonprofits, we found this mantel of giving has been taken up by four Pembroke Seniors: Michael Innes, Ethan Angrist, Matthew Berkley, and Grace Parkerson, who formed a group called “Guys & Gals Giving Grants” to raise funds for Harmony Project KC.
Harmony Project KC, based at the Northeast Community Center provides tuition-free, intense, orchestral music instruction, practice, and performance opportunities, building an orchestra with diverse young people in their own neighborhoods, after school and weekends, year-round, in a safe environment. “The program does not solely focus on the musical aspect but also on their academics, social skills, and responsibility,” Innes explained.
Berkley added, “Our first goal was to spread awareness about Harmony Project KC; then we concentrated on asking for funding so more kids could attend.”
These four young philanthropists worked for six months researching, drafting letters, and creating a presentation. They’ve been meeting with everyone from CEOs and the heads of charitable foundations to their own grandparents and classmates’ parents. “After reaching out to family and friends, we started researching local foundations that support at-risk kids, education, and the arts,” Angrist said. “Then making phone calls and getting appointments with funders. It was harder than any of us expected.”
The hard work has paid off for the kids at Harmony Project, as Guys & Gals Giving Grants has raised almost $20,000 of its $30,000 goal.
“It’s definitely been eye-opening,” Parkerson said. “We really had to sell ourselves and the program to people who didn’t really know us or the program at all. But once we got in the door, the program sold itself.”
“We are fortunate to have compassionate young people willing to engage with and commit to their community; it bodes well for our future,” said Laura Shultz, executive director of the Northeast Community Center and Harmony Project KC.
by PAIGE O’CONNOR
In her journal, “M” wrote that she was sexually abused by a family member when she was younger and that she didn’t like to go to school because she couldn’t read or write well. Was it a call for help or just a statement of truth? When asked if she wanted help she said she did, but as a minor, a parent’s or guardian’s permission is essential. When we asked, we were granted permission to have her tested academically, but we were not given permission to seek outside professional help for her past abuse. At the age of 15, our shy, withdrawn student tested at the first-grade level of reading and writing. Today, she is a productive community member, working while taking college courses.
“T” is one of 10 children in a family. Five are in prison, four for murder and one for armed bank robbery; three joined the military to escape their environment; and one graduated high school and is working odd jobs. Against all odds, “T” is now a student at UMKC and the first in her family to go to college.
And “K,” as a child, lived through many of her mother’s men. The last husband, “a good man,” was a crack addict who stole birthday money, Christmas presents, and beat her sister when she didn’t have money for more crack. “K” went to KU, is married, a mother of twins, and she and her husband, both past Ambassadors, currently are two of Youth Ambassadors’ finest teachers.
Youth Ambassadors (YA), a local nonprofit organization established in 2010, serves underserved teenagers, a substantial portion of whom have a history of multiple trauma exposure and who continue to live in compromising circumstances that often create barriers to their own success. Unabated intergenerational poverty, single-parent households, the continuation of blighted infrastructures, high unemployment, underemployment, transiency, and teenage incarceration rates are among the myriad of problems our youth face.
Due to countless risk factors, our Ambassadors like “M,” “T,” and “K,” require positive role models and targeted support systems in order to work through personal barriers and reach their full potential. YA recognizes that empowering youth with life skills, job skills, social emotional learning and opportunities for creative expression contributes to the ultimate goal: that youth successfully transition into adulthood with the aspiration and skills to drive their education and employment opportunities.
A 2017 study by The Pennsylvania State University with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has shown the benefits of investing in social emotional health are increasingly evident. Research shows that “good social emotional skills can lead to better education, employment, and physical and mental health, and to fewer problems with substance abuse and antisocial behavior or relationships.” Key findings of the study showed that students were more successful in the learning environment and that they were more likely to graduate from both high school and college. In effect, they are more likely to get jobs, and jobs with higher paying salaries, which is a benefit to the individual and society as a whole. Developing better social emotional skills also helps individuals lead healthy lives and avoid risky behavior, which can contribute to physical and mental health problems, substance abuse, delinquency, and crime. The study concludes that investing in SEL programming generates positive impact for individuals and society, as well as a positive impact on overall population health.
Youth Ambassadors is designed as an educational, employment program. Ambassadors are paid minimum wage to take four classes daily: Life and Job Skills, Art, Writing, and either Health, Speech, Financial Literacy, or Critical Consciousness & Employment Opportunities. In addition, they are taught that they are resilient and their voice matters. They alone can speak for themselves, so they are taught advocacy skills essential for positive change.
Annually, Youth Ambassadors provides employment to over 300 teenagers during non-school hours when youth are most susceptible to negative influences. Existing programming includes an eight-week summer intensive and an academic year Saturday academy. Small class sizes, with a ratio of seven to 10 students to every teacher, develop close student-mentor relationships and teach targeted skills through interactive teaching methods, including two-way teaching, team idea mapping, and discussion groups.
It takes every stakeholder together to solve the problems of poverty, trauma, and poor schooling. Youth Ambassadors believes each one of our teenage youth is the future of our community. Thanks to supporters, volunteers, and various community partners, we are able to empower teenage youth, building skills and competencies that allow them to be successful in their present daily lives and future endeavors.