by Moira Cullings
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It was 34 degrees on the evening of Jan. 16, and snow lingered on the ground from the day before.
Eleven volunteers gathered in a circle at the Uplift warehouse here listening to Ross Dessert, who arrived after teaching all day at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park.
The group was preparing to deliver a hot meal and supplies to the homeless, and Dessert, who oversees Uplift’s operations, shared a few encouraging words before they departed.
“It’s a different deal,” he told them. “It’s a very raw experience.”
After his talk, the volunteers jumped into four vans packed with provisions and headed out to help those without a home survive a cold winter night in Kansas City.
This was a typical evening for Dessert, whose passion for Uplift’s mission is at the forefront of his world.
“It’s meant a lot to me,” he said, “but not in the way you’d think.
“It’s meant a lot to me because it’s changed my life.”
Uplift is a nongovernmental organization that relies entirely on donations and volunteers. One of its founders was the late Frank Fiorini, who was a longtime parishioner of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park.
For 30 years, the organization’s volunteers have gone out on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings to minister to those without shelter in and around the Kansas City area.
Typically, during the winter, 150-200 people are served each night. In the summer, it’s closer to 400 people, said Dessert, who began volunteering seven years ago.
As a theology teacher at Miege, he first encountered the organization while chaperoning a field trip there.
Dessert was so moved by Uplift’s mission that he asked then-president Kathy Dean what he could do to help. She said she needed drivers.
“So, I started driving once a month,” he said. “And I liked it, so I started driving twice a month.
“I’ve gotten more and more involved.”
Dessert is now a board member and runs the entire operations side of Uplift — overseeing donations, cooks, truck routes, volunteers and more.
He also continues the Miege tradition of introducing students to the ministry.
“Most teenagers have not really experienced it,” he said. “All [my students] know is they’ve seen somebody begging on a stoplight corner or at the [Country Club] Plaza. They’ve never really had face-to-face interaction.”
Dessert said the experience is eye-opening for anyone who volunteers.
“When you get to talk to [someone who is homeless] a little bit,” he said, “you hear their story or you see their pain or their joy, and you come to know them as people.
“That transforms your heart, your mind, your notions [and] your biases.”
Dessert’s first night as a driver was the moment that shifted his perspective on serving the poor.
While out on a route, Dessert served a man named Mark who asked him why he was there.
“I said, ‘I’m doing this because I want to give back and I want to help,’ and all the normal answers you’d say,” said Dessert.
He was puzzled when Mark told him his motivation was lacking.
“You ever read Matthew [Chapter] 25?’” Mark asked Dessert.
“Jesus told us a lot of stuff,” said Mark, “but he [emphasized that] we’ve got to take care of each other. You’ve got to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. And if you do that, you can have eternal reward.”
The man encouraged Dessert to commit to charity as a lifestyle and not just an occasional activity.
“He put it so matter-of-factly that this is such a supreme command [by Jesus] that it moved me,” said Dessert. “He taught me something right there. He made me rethink it.
“And that changed my life.”
‘You saved me’
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on how charities around the world operate.
Dessert said Uplift has received more donated goods than ever this winter, but it’s also faced various challenges.
The organization has outgrown its current warehouse and needs to find the money for a bigger space.
In the meantime, while stocked with supplies, many volunteers haven’t been to the warehouse since March, when there were 47 regular drivers. Now, there are just 14.
One volunteer who keeps Uplift running is Bill Schoep, who Dessert said “would come out every night if you let him.”
Schoep is a parishioner at Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe and a member of the Knights of Columbus.
He began volunteering at Uplift with the Knights nearly three years ago.
“I tell people that when I first came down here, I was going to save the homeless,” said Schoep. “When I left that first night, they gave me so much more than I gave them.
“That’s kind of how it works down here.”
One of the most profound experiences Schoep had was when he was on a route with a driver named Jack, who warned him specifically not to go into the homeless camps but to always stay at the meeting spots where they distributed supplies.
“This particular night, this lady came up to me and she couldn’t form words,” said Schoep. “It was blowing snow. It was five or 10 degrees.”
Schoep told Jack the woman was frozen, so they put her in the front seat of the truck and turned the heat on until, after several minutes, she could talk again.
With Jack’s lead, they eventually helped the woman get back to her camp and bundled her up with blankets, which Schoep reminded Jack broke the rule he had harped on earlier in the night.
“Listen,” Jack told him afterward. “You just saved that lady’s life tonight. She would’ve died. Do you understand that?”
“That’s the type of thing that [convinced] me to become a driver,” said Schoep. “I want to help people like that.”
Schoep said every volunteer has dozens of inspiring stories they could share. One of his favorites came from a couple who was newly homeless and was introduced to Uplift by a man they met on the street.
The couple told Schoep that late one night, the man approached them with a clamshell full of food he had received from Uplift.
“Here’s a homeless guy that has nothing. [He] sleeps outside,” said Schoep. “And he takes his food and gives it to these people.
“He just gave everything he had to somebody else.”
Schoep said he and his fellow Knights compete to get a spot volunteering at Uplift because it’s such a powerful experience.
“I just can’t get enough of it,” he said. “[The homeless] give me far more than I give them. And now I’ve developed friendships out here. We call each other by name.
“They say, ‘God bless you. You saved me.’”
Schoep said these experiences wouldn’t be possible without people like Dessert to lead the way.
“Guys like Ross, they give and give and give,” he said. “From a Catholic standpoint . . . you can’t do anything better than this.”
‘I hope they find God in their hard situation’
Uplift has provided a place for young people to give back to their community for three decades.
Alyssa Hall, a senior at St. Pius X High School in Kansas City, Missouri, and Mary Kate Lillis, an eighth grader at Curé of Ars School in Leawood, volunteered there for the first time on Jan. 16.
Hall is pursuing the Spanish Seal of Biliteracy and needed service hours. Lillis is a confirmation candidate whose sponsor, Nikki Frerker, introduced her to Uplift. Both young women were eager to get involved.
“Sometimes, we get distracted in our own bubble,” said Lillis.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the people and seeing a different perspective of life I don’t really see every day,” she added.
A passerby would never know it was the girls’ first time at Uplift.
Lillis boxed up hot food from the truck while Hall recorded the names of those they were serving while handing each a cup of hot chocolate.
The ministry seemed to come naturally to them.
“[Giving is] a little bit like the spiritual life,” said Hall. “We place it all in God’s hands. And that’s how it is with a monetary charity. You place it. You know that [the charity] is doing good work.
“But sometimes, God desires to show you physical things of his goodness in your life. And that’s what it is for me working hands-on. It’s kind of like being the hand of God to someone else in the way that he wants me to be.”
Lillis hoped her work would bring those without shelter who she encountered a greater faith.
“It’s hard even for people who do have a warm place to find God,” she said. “But I hope they find God in their hard situation and that we can bring some happiness.”
A steadfast example
Dessert plays a substantial role in introducing young people to Uplift.
Marco Marquez, one of his former students, visited Uplift for the first time as a freshman at the University of Kansas.
He received a text one day from Dessert saying they were down a volunteer and needed someone to fill the spot. Marquez happily agreed.
“It was an evening spent that I won’t forget,” he said.
Marquez recently graduated from KU, but even a few years out of high school, he hasn’t forgotten his former teacher’s example.
“I went [from] preschool through twelfth grade in Catholic education, and Ross was at the top of the list of teachers [who had no problem] getting real and telling you about the real world,” he said. “He wasn’t afraid to have those conversations.”
Marquez said Dessert teaches students about the reality of poverty, which is an important lesson for young people, because they often have a desire to help.
His 10-year-old nephew is a prime example of that. This past Christmas, he was in the car with Marquez’s mom when he saw a homeless man begging on a street corner.
“It struck some inspiration in him to where [he] wanted to raise money and make care packages [for those who are homeless],” said Marquez.
Marquez’s mom took him to the Dollar Store, where they bought a variety of supplies. Afterward, Marquez’s dad took the young boy to deliver the goods to those living on the streets.
“Rather than walking down the street and seeing a homeless man on the sidewalk and choosing to avoid him, [kids often] know that’s someone in need and they want to do something about it,” said Marquez.
People like Dessert, he said, offer a path of action.
A teacher and a doer
Jennifer Dessert isn’t surprised by her husband’s heart for homeless people, but his tireless dedication amazes her.
“He never stops working on it,” she said. “I think he thinks about it day and night.
“He loves each and every person out there and thinks about them and goes above and beyond. It’s beautiful to see.”
Jennifer has volunteered with Uplift since she met Dessert around five years ago. She can see why he’s so passionate about helping those without a home in a tangible way.
“We’re meeting them on their home turf,” she said. “They’re more relaxed, more hospitable and just happy that you’re visiting them at their home, even if their home is under a bridge.”
Maureen Engen, Miege principal, also knows firsthand the power of Uplift.
She’s volunteered there for the past two years and, understanding how much work it can be, is astonished by the time and sacrifice Dessert puts into it.
“I think it’s his main call to serve the poor,” she said. “It’s a call to holiness. And the way I see it, he feels a connection to those that are homeless and those that are poor.
“And so many great saints did.”
Engen said Dessert “doesn’t draw attention to himself” but “just immerses himself” in ministry and shares it openly with the next generation.
“He’s called to be a teacher,” she said, “but Ross’s greatest gift is he’s a storyteller. And he doesn’t just tell a story. He does walk the walk.”
Not only does he talk frequently about charity, but Dessert has also created an environment that welcomes contemplative conversation among students, she said, and he leads meaningful discussions that often leave a lasting impact.
More importantly, she added, he listens.
“He talks to these kids about things that matter,” said Engen. “And he allows them to have their voice heard.
“And that is a gift.”
Connect With Uplift
Help the homeless
Uplift relies entirely on donations. Some of the most helpful ones are:
• Heavy coats
• Jeans (especially men’s size 30-36)
• Pet food
• Hand warmers
• Hygiene products
• Medical supplies