by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — A businessman, an artist, a teacher and a politician walk into a coffee shop.
No, that’s not the beginning of a joke.
Rather, it’s a pretty realistic description of the mix you might see on a Friday morning at A Cup on the Hill Coffee Shop near Seventh Street and Minnesota Avenue in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.
It’s friendly, relaxed and vibrant with no official agenda. And people connect.
A Cup on the Hill is among the latest partnerships and programs Community Housing of Wyandotte County has brewing in the KCK community.
Building on the vision of coffee program founder Jamina Bone, it’s been open in the former Katz building for a few months now. The goal is for it to become profitable in the next quarter or two, with an ultimate dream of creating a program where youth with disadvantages can learn to navigate the workforce.
The shop operates Monday through Friday, featuring gourmet drinks.
On Fridays from 8-10 a.m., CHWC’s community coffee takes place in the room adjacent to the shop. People who want espresso drinks can purchase them; otherwise, regular coffee is free during that time.
“It’s all about this community — bringing people in,” said Steven Curtis, director of community building and engagement with CHWC. It’s just one snapshot of the many ways in which CHWC works to improve neighborhoods and the quality of life for residents.
CHWC was initially Catholic Housing of Wyandotte County, which later merged with Neighborhood Housing Services to form Community Housing of Wyandotte County.
Its mission is to “revitalize, stabilize and reinvest in” neighborhoods in KCK.
It has three lines of business: building new houses and rehabbing existing ones to provide affordable home-ownership opportunities in the urban core; counseling to help homebuyers succeed; and community building.
“Many times people assume that our role is simply to build houses and walk away, and that couldn’t be further from the reality,” said Susan Carroll, a full-time volunteer for CHWC.
‘Lifelong member of the neighborhoods’
Just as Carroll — a parishioner of Cathedral of St. Peter Parish — rolls out the welcome mat for neighbors on her own front porch, she works tirelessly to deliver that welcoming spirit across the city.
“I like to say that my primary role is being a lifetime member of the neighborhoods that are served by CHWC,” said Carroll, who has called the same block home essentially her entire life.
Like many people, CHWC weathered some difficult years with economic downturns and faced heavy questions about its own future.
When an executive director left, Carroll agreed to step in during the interim, a period that stretched two and a half years. During that time, she never accepted a cent as people came together and the organization rebounded and thrived.
Once Donny Smith, the current executive director, took the reins, she stayed on, continuing to volunteer in community outreach.
Sam and Beth Meier, also parishioners of the cathedral, were actually planning to buy a smaller home in the suburbs in which to raise their family — which now includes two little boys and a baby girl — when Carroll persuaded them to consider a CHWC house.
Before she retired, Carroll had been Sam’s supervisor at the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, where he is the consultant for the My House Initiative.
CHWC counselors meet with prospective homebuyers to help them navigate the process and uncover possible assistance. The couple was soon sold.
“It was nice to find a home in our price range that was larger and brand- new!” said Sam. “It is good to see our neighborhood continuing to improve, and other families starting out in affordable homes that they can be proud of.”
Beth has even joined the board.
Historically, Catholic Housing focused its efforts in neighborhoods around downtown parishes, said Smith, but CHWC has since expanded those circles and there is construction now underway on new houses in the Meadowlark area farther west.
There is also a first-of-its-type home under construction on Straw- berry Hill utilizing structurally insulated panels. These should add efficiency, cut costs and reduce the build time from about six months to roughly 10 weeks.
CHWC also hopes to eventually build an affordable senior assisted living facility at the former Bethany Hospital site.
‘This encompasses the whole community’
CHWC’s impact far exceeds the number of houses it has built.
“What we do with our community-building . . . reaches everybody in the community,” said Carroll, “whether they live in one of our houses or not.
“This encompasses the whole community.”
Take, for example, Waterway Park.
When Carroll was raising her own four children, she was terrified to walk the four blocks there to play.
But over the past several years, CHWC has invested close to $300,000 in the park, creating what Curtis sees as an alternative to a community center — in open air and with no need to close a building for hours at a time.
Dirt from CHWC homebuilding sites actually filled in areas of the park.
Plants were then added and a walking trail designed. And it is wheelchair-accessible from the parking lot to the bright play equipment.
A walking group meets each Monday and Saturday, and 100-plus people use the park every day.
Carroll takes her grandchildren there, and it’s also a key part of the avid runner’s own fitness routine.
“You see people who are not regular exercisers or who have not been [at all], and they see other people walking around the park, and it’s kind of pleasant, and it’s kind of social,” she said.
She sees exercise as a universal language, and people from all back- grounds enjoy this together.
Art and connections
Art can also work that way.
Curtis, an artist himself, tries to incorporate art into all of CHWC’s neighborhoods.
But Art in the Park is designed specifically to bring people out on summer afternoons.
CHWC’s young and active Art Squad has been responsible for, among other projects, the colorful murals that brighten alleyways and reduce gang tagging on garages.
In the Strawberry Hill area, people of all ages are trying their hand at pottery at Epic Clay Studio. And next door, an architectural group from the University of Kansas has settled into a space to do business as the Dotte Agency.
Art-inspired events are planned for the nearby Epic Park space this summer as well, where the representatives of KU built an accessible outdoor stage, complete with a set of steps that plays piano-like sounds when people step on them.
Finally, the KU group has pitched in on a greenhouse on CHWC’s urban farm, another community engagement opportunity.
The farm sits across from M.E. Pearson Elementary School in an area where 40 percent of people live at the poverty line or below, and most kids in the school qualify for free lunch.
“It seemed to me that an urban garden might be a good idea,” said Curtis, and CHWC partnered with the city on a grant for the farm on three formerly vacant lots.
Organizers had over 570 pounds of produce to give away to the neighborhood last year, and ended up, even with less-than-ideal soil conditions the first year, growing close to 700 pounds.
Preschoolers at the school helped plant the produce this year, and Curtis hopes to build on that community involvement. He loves to get kids involved, he said, because it engages them in their community from an early age.
Next year, he hopes to work with a local restaurant to provide locally grown produce into the early winter.
‘Much more’ than renovators
The impact CHWC has had on the community has earned it attention and respect.
“CHWC is a wonderful community partner that works wonders as we redevelop parts of our city that have been left untouched for years,” said Mark Holland, mayor/CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas. “They are much more than home renovators — we have also partnered with their organization on community gardens that beautify, educate and feed neighborhoods and eating classes that teach nutritious ways to prepare food harvested from the gardens.
“Their organization goes above and beyond to improve Kansas City, Kansas.”
Three honored for steadfast support of CHWC
Tom Bickimer. Susan Carroll. James J. Owens.
To Msgr. Thomas Tank, pastor of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park and a key member of the team that founded Catholic Housing of Wyandotte County, the word “passion” defines these three people.
“They are truly dedicated to Community Housing of Wyandotte County and have done so much over the years,” he said.
The three were honored with the 2015 “Continue the Legacy Award,” named for Msgr. Tank at the annual Center Circle Event at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas, on June 20.
Owens, a parishioner of St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park and former chief financial officer of the archdiocese, has brought to the table a “tremendous business background” and financial expertise, said Msgr. Tank, that has helped make this a professional, fiscally responsible organization.
Bickimer, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park, has contributed his expertise in building and construction to CHWC.
And a passion for families and for the neighborhood where Carroll has lived her whole life courses through her veins.
They’ve been there for CHWC when times have been good, said Msgr. Tank, and they’ve stood by the organization when circumstances were hard. The same economic downturns and housing concerns that affected many people during the past decade also had an impact on the organization, which rallied to make it through the hardest times.
Carroll, for example, spent more than two years as interim executive director, never accepting a cent for her work, and helped identify Donny Smith as the next leader of CHWC.
“It wasn’t always this easy,” said Msgr. Tank. “They rolled up their sleeves, went to work and gave everything that was important and necessary for CHWC to not only survive, but to be so much of a benefit to eastern Kansas City, Kansas.”
He said he couldn’t think of three more deserving honorees.
Learn more about Community Housing of Wyandotte County, its programs, how to get involved and how to contribute by visiting its website at: www.chwckck.org.
CHWC also has a Facebook page. Search for Community Housing of Wyandotte County, Inc.