By Tina Casagrand
If you want to talk about social problems, think about this: Missouri has the fastest-growing food insecurity rate in the nation, increasing domestic violence reports, and declining school funding for everything from counselors to art teachers.
People in Missouri don’t just talk about problems. We act on them. That “Show-Me” spirit shines through in these stories of hard-working people who want to improve life for others.
When talking to staff members about their nonprofits’ leadership, the word “visionary” often arises. These are people willing to change when necessary and stay around to see that the job is completed. Rose Brooks’s CEO has served for fifteen years. The founder of Concerns for Police Survivors has served for thirty. The Wyman Center’s CEO started as a camp counselor in 1965 and doesn’t plan to leave anytime soon. But age is certainly not a requirement. At least one nonprofit director—Murielle Gaither, of the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri—is fresh out of college. She has a vision for positive change, too.
The smaller groups are just as inspiring, perhaps more, for their singular willpower. The founder of 2000 Feet, for instance, asked simply, “What can I do with the resources I have?” Now she has equipped thousands of children with new shoes. And when the founders of the Missouri River Bird Observatory saw native habitats changing, they started research that nobody else had time to do. Our most incredible assets are the people who don’t get paid to help.
Joan Dougherty orchestrates up to three thousand volunteers at the Rose Brooks domestic violence shelter in Kansas City. “Our volunteers are our lifeblood,” she says. The same goes for any of these groups. Volunteers keep the United Service Organization running twenty-four hours a day. Volunteers teach art one-on-one to children in alternative schools. They clean stables at a therapeutic riding center in Washington and pick apples in Nodaway County for the hungry. They even coach bocce ball for Special Olympics Missouri.
Every minute helps. So does each dollar. Numerous organizations have had to turn away those in need because of cost, yet instead of getting discouraged, their staffs redouble efforts to make each cent count for the people who need it most.
We culled through the data and used several nonprofit rating resources to select a few across the state who are giving back and doing it well. There are hundreds more that could have been included.
Missouri has a presence in all of these stories, but it’s our giving people who truly drive this narrative, and they make our state stronger each day.
They’ll show you how Missouri makes a difference.
As a child, Elinor Nelson never owned more than one pair of shoes and wore each until the soles gave out. She doesn’t worry about having quality shoes anymore. As founder of 2000 Feet, she’s making sure other children don’t have to worry, either.
Throughout the year, 2000 Feet’s volunteers take kids to shoe stores to try on and purchase a pair on the organization’s dime.
Wearing a poorly fitting shoe can cause discomfort and stress fractures; kids slipping their feet into second- hand shoes might also be slipping their feet into bacteria and fungus.
Elinor says new shoes improve a child’s selfesteem. “You feel so much better when you have a choice to pick out what you like and what you want,” she says.
2000 Feet gives kids the chance to express themselves and gives parents some fi nancial relief when it comes time to shop.
The organization’s sponsorships have recently dwindled. Meanwhile, the cost of clothing is rising. When 2000 Feet started, twenty dollars could buy a decent pair of children’s shoes at stores such as Payless. Now, the organization budgets forty dollars.
A shoe-based nonprofit has a few perks: Shoes don’t require major research or government approval like other health-focused groups. And the results speak volumes. In thirteen years, 2000 Feet has donated more than 6,650 pairs of shoes.
Lori Ann Kinder will tell you that artistic communities come in all shapes and sizes.
“If you look at a community, and it doesn’t have to be big—I mean, some of the most artistic communities are just dots on the map—if there’s some sort of community outposts for the artists, it makes for deeper perspectives on society and culture,” says Lori Ann, chair of the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri. She moved from Dallas to Cape Girardeau in 2002 and became involved almost immediately.
The Arts Council’s space in downtown Cape Girardeau branches into three galleries. One features work from local Visual Arts Cooperative members and others from Poplar Bluff, Sikeston, Ste. Genevieve, and other towns. On their First Friday events last year, more than 20,000 visitors explored 15 exhibits.
Executive Director Murielle Gaither makes efforts to connect artists to two local hospitals, the artsy river campus of Southeast Missouri State University, area art teachers, and youth.
A National Arts Foundation grant connected three visiting artists with a hundred students in Cape’s Alternative Education Center. Another called ArtReach connects university art students to an after-school arts educational program. An annual fall craft fair draws twelve thousand visitors and raises more than half the council’s revenue, which enables them to offer free programming and supports area arts initiatives.
Whether they are helping students make their own art or showcasing group shows, juried shows, and special guests in the building’s galleries, the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri is cultivating a positive presence in the cultural tapestry of the Cape Girardeau area.
Television isn’t the only place where dogs come to the rescue. Canine Helpers Allow More Possibilities, or CHAMP, trains service dogs to care for humans and humans to care for dogs. It also teaches the community about disabilities, matches dogs with facilities, and runs a program that helps young children build self-confidence by reading to animals. “Our whole philosophy is to celebrate the bond between the human and the canine,” says Pam Bolton, CHAMP executive director. The organization, based in Florissant, serves people within a fifty-mile radius of St. Louis.
One program called CHAMP to the Rescue pairs dogs from animal shelters with prisoners in a women’s correctional facility, where the canines learn basic obedience skills for three months. Healthy dogs that excel move on to a specialized service dog program. Service dogs that graduate can retrieve items, help people get undressed, help people transfer from a bed to a wheelchair, make 911 calls, and more. As they live with the dogs around the clock, the prisoners learn vocational skills and train dogs that will someday help others.
Some former inmates now work for CHAMP full-time. CHAMP’s therapy dog program also gets results. “I’ll see someone in pain,” Pam says, “and their eyes light up when the dog comes in. That’s why we do it.”
Just minutes after an E-5 tornado tore through the Southwest Missouri town of Joplin on May 22, 2011, Convoy of Hope’s disaster response team sprang into action.
“We were in Joplin literally hours after the tornado hit, and we haven’t left,” says Jeff Roman, the organization’s public relations director.
Convoy of Hope was founded in 1994, and as it grew, Missouri supporters and donors helped the group relocate from Los Angeles to Springfield. “In our mind, this is our community,” says Jeff Nene, Convoy’s national spokesperson. “If we’re going to do things around the world, we better help out people here.”
Being at the center of the country allows the organization to efficiently transport food and supplies to those in need. But not many people understand the breadth of its impact at its headquarters in Springfield.
Many of Convoy’s better-publicized missions take them to eleven countries across the globe. “I think we’re known as a global organization, but we definitely do have a Missouri footprint,” Jeff Roman says.
Convoy’s construction crews recently completed building its thirteenth home in Joplin and has been involved with flood response in the state in the past two years. The group regularly helps supply several food pantries in southwest Missouri and has held more than twenty community outreach days in towns across Missouri, to name a few of their in-state efforts.
“As we build relationships to communities doing outreach work, if they then get hit with unfortunate disaster,” Jeff Roman says, “we’re on the shortlist of who to call for help.”
Officer Bob Stanze could not stand seeing hair on a dinner plate. Gagging, the officer of the St. Louis Police Department would make a beeline from the table to a bathroom. “Oh my gosh, his face would just drain of color,” says Deb House, his sister.
Ten years ago, Deb could not have told this story. When her brother was killed on duty in 2000, grief quietly consumed her. People at her workplace didn’t know that she had lost a sibling. She couldn’t say his name. “What if I did, and I started crying?” she says. “It was too hard.”
Her sister-in-law, Michelle, encouraged her to attend a retreat organized by Concerns for Police Survivors. After five years, Deb relented and joined the more than thirty-two thousand police survivors who C.O.P.S. serves nationwide.
“I would not be where I am without them,” Deb says. The organization sponsors individual retreats for spouses, siblings, children, parents, and coworkers of law enforcement officers lost in the line of duty. Attending sessions with mental health counselors and completing physical and emotional challenges at retreats are a part of the healing process.
The C.O.P.S. concept was born when ten police widows discussed how they dealt with the sudden, traumatic grief and the lack of support they received from their husbands’ police agencies. Their issues inspired the foundation for C.O.P.S.
“They were home, by themselves, trying to cope as well as they could,” says Suzie Sawyer, who founded the organization more than thirty years ago after meeting those ten women. “There was nobody calling, nobody doing anything for them.”
Appearing in court on days off work, dealing with media interviews, and attending memorial services are just a few of the extra hardships families must handle in addition to coping with their loss. C.O.P.S. helps guide family members through these trials, but few know about the organization’s headquarters in the Show-Me State. “We’ve been here twenty years, and C.O.P.S. is still one of the best-kept secrets in Missouri,” Suzie says. Suzie and her husband moved from the Washington, DC, area to Camdenton in 1993.
“When we moved to Missouri, it allowed us to focus on C.O.P.S. and increase the number of programs C.O.P.S. provided to survivors,” she says. “And here’s a shocker: there are great, affordable resources here in Missouri where we could hold those programs.”
Places such as Potosi and Bennett Springs provide perfect serenity and remoteness for C.O.P.S. retreats. Suzie says she loves that every day she can say she has helped someone. “That’s the miracle of C.O.P.S.,” she says, “because it’s one survivor helping another put their lives back together.”
Exceptional Equestrians’ awardwinning horses live in its stables, premier accreditation certificates hang on its walls, and a staff of six certified instructors lead more than one hundred volunteers (some of them actual cowboys) who donate thousands of hours of their time. The therapeutic horseback riding center serves about a hundred individuals per week.
In 2013, a liver-chestnut Appaloosa named Zaar won the PATH International Horse of the Year award— their second such award in three years. He’s just one of eleven calm, caring creatures dubbed the “four-legged therapists.” From his first day on the job, Zaar seemed determined to help a particular paraplegic rider. “At the end of each session, he would wait patiently until the rider was back in his wheelchair, then he would ‘kiss’ the rider,” an anonymous award nominator wrote.
Riders can develop their communication, physical, and motor skills by working with the horses.
“A lot of program participants don’t do well in traditional settings, and they just excel out here,” says Kyla Somerville, the organization’s administrative manager.
On an especially great day, an eight-year-old girl who struggles with a rare seizure-inducing syndrome gave her first high five after five years in the program. Kyla lives for those moments: “It’s times like that when you see all their hard work take off.”
73502 Woodland Pointe Drive, St. Joseph, Missouri 64506
A St. Joseph organization is blazing trails with brand new bicycles. As the hometown of late cycling enthusiast Mark J. Reynolds, the Northwest Missouri city is a hub for providing underprivileged children with their very first bike.
The nonprofit is a labor of love for Mark’s mother, Dona, who volunteers her time as the fund’s president. She remembers her son’s fi rst bicycle, a little four-wheeler that sat about eight inches from the floor. “In Mark’s lifetime, he never forgot the thrill of that fi rst bike,” she says.
Later in life, Mark began quietly donating bikes to families who could not afford them for their children. He’d ask for a few bucks from friends to help with the cause and would often deliver the bikes himself.
In 2004, Mark was tragically killed by a mountain lion while cycling in California. His family continues his work from St. Joseph, while efforts out west are coordinated by a woman who was attacked by that same cougar on the day Mark died.
The volunteer-based group is privately funded. Its signature events involve giveaways of about twenty bicycles, helmets, and one-on-one training. Children are taught road safety and proper biking skills. The fund has donated more than 1,500 bikes since 2004.
The organization’s specially designed bikes help children with disabilities. A girl with spina bifida at Shriners Hospital in St. Louis has a hand-powered bike.
“She can now say, ‘I’m a biker,’ ” Dona says and counts that as a comfort that her son’s memory endures.
Recorded sightings of the Saw-Whet Owl in Missouri topped out at thirty when Observatory director Dana Ripper fist learned about the bird, but these were not nearly enough sightings for scientific analysis. So for weeks during two autumn seasons, she set up mist nets at night and prayed for the bad weather these birds preferred. Once captured, the pintsized creatures were complacent, as long as the banders patted their heads. Within two fall seasons, Dana and her colleagues banded nearly twice the Saw-Whets in Missouri than had ever been documented before.
MRBO studies and counts birds, and while that may seem like a pretty dull or unimportant affair, consider this: the Missouri Department of Conservation spends 1.5 million dollars annually to restore the state’s prairie and wetland habitats. Nongovernmental operations like MRBO provide research to back up those conservation measures. The organization’s operating cost is low and can better focus on these specific efforts. Dana, co-director Ethan Duke, and a handful of assistants net and record birds across the state.
Pick any place near the Missouri River, and you’re likely near wetlands, prairies, and forests—a few of the natural resources that make Missouri beautiful.
“We’re trying to tell a different story for each project,” Ethan says about the habitats they watch. “Or really, the birds are trying to tell us some things. We’re just monitoring them.”
MRBO also educates children in hopes of fostering an appreciation for nature. One event took Kansas City youth to band birds.
With the data they collect, MRBO also helps landowners and organizations improve wildlife habitats. Ethan values each spark he sees when people learn about ecosystems and their importance.
One in three women have experienced domestic violence, according to Rose Brooks Center.
“It is across ethnicity, race, and income,” says Sharla Nolte, marketing manager for the center in Kansas City. “For a lot of women, shelters are the only way they can find safety from their abusers. They can finally move past that and start their own life.”
The Rose Brooks Center empowers women in the Kansas City area and is a national leader. Its reach has grown as a result. In 2012, they gave 625 women and children more than 57,600 safe nights.
Recently, the staff helped police officers to better assess domestic violence situations via a set of questions: if officers determine that the risk of murder is high, women are encouraged to leave immediately and go somewhere safe, such as a shelter. Before the assessment was implemented, the center expected six to ten calls a week. Now, they receive six to ten calls each day.
Sharla says that most women who came to the shelter in the past had planned to, but now, more women leave home at a moment’s notice and arrive at Rose Brooks Center with few possessions.
The shelter had to physically expand, and the need for clothing and other supplies increased. “We’re always over capacity,” Sharla says. They coordinate with other shelters in the city and help with safety planning over the phone if space is unavailable.
These families face other obstacles. Michelle Horst, a Rose Brooks Center volunteer, coordinates Rosie’s Closet, where women can pick out new clothes. “For me, it’s kind of evolved into being able to organize the system and know it’s working when you see women come in and they’re finding things that they want,” she says. “It gives them a sense of power and to feel better about themselves when it’s the clothing items that they would want to have—not just need, but want—and had to leave at home.”
Michelle recalls a woman who came in to shop for her sixteen-year-old son. Boys’ clothing donations are notoriously hard to find, but Michelle anticipated the clients and called friends to ask for help. She put the donations out the morning that the woman and her son arrived. “And he was truly excited about it,” Michelle says. “That moment kind of stuck with me because I have a fifteen-year-old son.”
Guests at the shelter are not required to participate in services Rose Brooks Center provides. “The women and children have already experienced so much trauma,” Sharla says. “Other places tell them when to go to bed, when to eat, what programs to attend. We’re making sure they have freedom and power.”
With a list of partners nearing one hundred, the entire Kansas City community is helping Rose Brooks Center give women a refuge.
Hunger looks different today than it did sixty years ago. “And the numbers are higher than what people think,” says Tamara Grubb, Second Harvest’s operations director. Last year, Second Harvest distributed six million pounds of food in its hometown of St. Joseph and to eighteen surrounding counties. Second Harvest runs a delivery program for seniors, a weekend food program for children, cooking demonstrations, and an on-site garden.
About one hundred pantries in local towns and villages help with rural distribution. One such site is the Ministry Center in Maryville. Each weekend during the school year, Second Harvest helps the Ministry Center in Nodaway County distribute 260 packages of food in backpacks to children. Weekends can be a time when food is scarce for children who rely on school lunches during the week. But about four times that many students were identified as needing the service. The cost for the year—150 dollars per child—prohibits kids above grade six from receiving a backpack.
“One of the things we’re working on in counties such as Nodaway is expanding access to make sure those rural areas have access to nutrition assistance,” Tamara says. “It’s certainly doable, but it’s not easy.”
Travis McLain sits in his office beneath the approving gaze of a massive mounted buck. He’s a programs specialist for the Department of Conservation’s Protection Division and coordinator for Share the Harvest, a program that offers lean, wild-harvested venison to those in need. That was the vision of a group of archers who founded the program in 1992. Since then, the program has grown considerably and is now jointly administrated by the MDC and the Conservation Federation of Missouri. In 2002, nearly two thousand hunters donated deer, and their participation has more than tripled since then.
MDC conservation agents handle local program approval and coordination, press releases, and the distribution of meat packaging supplies needed. The CFM handles a great deal of the fundraising and publicity for the program. The funds reimburse participants for fees associated with processing whole-deer donations.
In many instances, all fees associated with processing are covered at no cost to the hunter. Share the Harvest partners with sixty processors across the state. These businesses agree to process and package the donated meat, which service organizations transport to food pantries and homeless shelters.
In some communities, it’s the Kiwanis; in others, it’s the Boy Scouts. Many are hunting clubs, such as Safari Club International’s Central Missouri chapter. The statewide total of meat donated in 2012 was 318,000 pounds, according to MDC data. All of it comes from and stays in Missouri.
Jane Highland, a thirty-four-year-old Special Olympics athlete, had been shy all her life. But something clicked after she made the Missouri state team for the USA Games. At a meeting with hundreds of supporters and athletes, Jane approached the stage to address the crowd about her fundraising efforts. She hadn’t spoken to anyone at the organization before.
Jane’s mother says she’s now lost more than twenty pounds and does more on her own. “I’m psyched about it,” Jane says of the 2014 USA games in New Jersey. The organization has also impacted its volunteers. “The athletes did more for me than I ever did for them,” says Gary Brimer, director of sports initiatives.
Before his first track practice in Boonville as a Special Olympics coach, he thought that he lacked patience, but the experience was “love at first sight.” The eighteen- year coach emphasizes the athletes’ receptiveness to instructions and their wholehearted enthusiasm at every practice.
Special Olympics athletes not only improve their fitness, but they also benefit from services such as screenings and the social opportunities games provide.
“We’re trying to create a sense of community in a place where people with intellectual disabilities can go and feel at home, while they’re normally shunned at school or their communities,” says Brandon Schatsiek, public relations coordinator for Special Olympics Missouri.
More than 17,600 Missouri athletes train year-round for twenty-one sports.
Amid the hustle and bustle of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, the James S. McDonnell USO facility is an oasis for military members. A nap room is filled with young soldiers; their Army boots punctuate the foot of each bed. A quiet computer space is aglow with emails and Facebook. Military men and women take a much-needed break on oversized lounge chairs.
The USO of Missouri is an important lift in these soldiers’ days. Active duty military men, women, and their families may visit for refuge, free food, entertainment, and, sometimes, a shoulder to lean on. Volunteers keep it open around the clock.
For one event, Fort Leonard Wood drops off more than five thousand troops for the holidays. At night, a sea of green spills into the baggage claim area, rocking with a DJ, photo booth, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
The USO of Missouri can also bring comfort to different parts of Missouri and Illinois at welcome home parties, training exercises, community festivals, and special events. For troops stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, the USO of Missouri operates a USO Club there to add a touch of home to the post. Their facility offers much of what the Lambert site does, as well as family game nights and various programs. Other events build awareness about the services they provide.
The USO of Missouri is financially independent from the national USO organization, which President Roosevelt founded. Then, it was best known as a place for coffee, donuts, and dancing, but a few things about military culture have changed.
“We are needed more now for cyber connectivity and a relaxing place versus a dance hall, as was the old days,” says Communications Director Sara Colvin.
With locations in both of Lambert’s terminals, on base at Fort Leonard Wood, and around the state with a mobile unit, the group’s ten-person staff and tireless volunteers help families coming home or tired recruits who just need to put up their feet.
A visit to a drug rehabilitation center gave Dave Hillard a wake-up call, but not the kind you might expect. He had come to see a young man he helped during his first job as a Wyman Center summer counselor. But when he arrived, a gaggle of past campers were waiting to say hello. They told Dave that Camp Wyman gave them the best weeks of their life: fresh air, all the food they could eat, a bed to themselves, and a respite from public housing and foster homes. “But for all of that, we didn’t make a meaningful difference,” Dave says.
They also told him how they sang campfire songs while sleeping on the streets of St. Louis.
Dave’s heart sunk. Wyman had to do more.
In about ten years, Wyman evolved from a two-week camp into a six-year commitment. Dave is now CEO, and Wyman serves tens of thousands of underprivileged teens. Since its inception in 1898, the organization has had fewer leadership turnovers than the Vatican.
The Teen Leadership Program begins with a camp on Wyman’s Eureka facilities, continues onto college campuses, and follows students into postsecondary careers for two years.
“I feel like everything I do is because of Wyman,” says Danielle Washington, the organization’s college programs coordinator. She and her twin sister started camp in eighth grade, just weeks after her father died.
“Wyman came at the perfect time; it was the perfect distraction and steered our energy in a different way,” she says.
Now, she designs programs and advises students about financial management, healthy relationships, and other college challenges. Danielle is one of thousands of Wyman success stories.
In the coming years, Wyman hopes to integrate into more Missouri education programs, especially in rural communities. Fewer Missourians participate in Wyman programs than they do in other states. Nevertheless, Dave says, “We can point to Missouri with a lot of pride.”
A Missouri teacher developed the Teen Outreach Program, a weekly, one-hour session of learning and community service that Wyman now replicates in thirty-three states. In that program, 98 percent of its students remained in school or graduated on time and 79 percent reported no school suspensions or course failures. In 2012, the organization partnered with more than 55 organizations and reached more than 30,000 teens nationwide. Parents as Teachers, another critical service, also came out of the Missouri organization.
“We are the Show-Me State,” he says, “and we’re showing the other states how to do it.”