Kansas City’s vibrant communities show their resilience through the many ways they care for each other. Stephanie Boydston, the executive director of Serve the World KC, a local community nonprofit in South Kansas City, joined Grace for an interview about how Serve the World is working for its neighborhood.

Q: What is Serve the World?

A: Serve the World is a nonprofit organization. We’re 501(c)(3) in South Kansas City. We started as a community effort to help our South Kansas City community, particularly the Center school district, by offering pantries and mentors to the kids in the Center school district. We have two events, fireworks and Halloween Evangel. In 2018, we were approached by some community members, Center School District, and Colonial Presbyterian Church. They said there was an opportunity to help further and deeper into the Center school district and asked if we would like to be the backbone organization for the students. So we started Impact Center Schools in 2019 with six families and we are helping the McKinney-Vento  population which is for the homeless students in the Center school district, providing them long-term case management with wraparound services.

Q: Are these year-round services?

A: We do year-round services, even when the school district is closed. We are still providing some assistance throughout the summer. It’s not as extensive as it is during the school year because we work very closely with social workers at the schools and the counselors who have school hours, so we try to work with the ones there for that brief period. Once they’re gone, we try to do as much as we can ourselves.

Q: What are all the different programs that Serve the World offers?

A: We partner with Nourish KC, who provides fresh produce to us. We partner with harvesters and get Hiland milk from them and other dairy products. Of course, you get the basic dry goods you usually would get anyway, but we get more variety because our families need that. It is a drive-through pantry, so that they will put stuff in your trunk. You have to be at least 18, and they will give a box to every 18-year-old or above in the car. 

There are no limitations on how often you can come. You can go once a week; you can’t come through twice that day but can attend the following Wednesday. We don’t have income restrictions because COVID showed us that anyone can endure a tough time. We just want to help the community in the best way we can. 

Our Fireworks at Evangel in June was an impressive fireworks display. We had about 5,000 individuals there. We had concessions; there were three-on-three basketball, a video game truck, bouncy houses, and some had water because it was hot. October will be Halloween at Evangel, so if you know any kids, have them come out with their parents, grandparents, auntie, whoever—October 28, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. There will be pony rides and a petting zoo. You could get some hot chocolate! I can’t guarantee the weather, but I assure you there will be a lot of candy, and it’s a safe environment for the kids.

Q: Is there anything else you want to add about how those programs operate?

A: We are a team of two. Our pantry is run by church veterans who have been here for 18 years. They have it down to a well-oiled machine. There are about 50 volunteers that run the pantry. They are an excellent group of individuals. We would not be able to do it without them, so I want to give a shout-out to them. They are amazing guys. I’m very appreciative of them.

Q: Can you tell us about the counseling program? 

A: Yes! Evangel has counseling services. They’ve had it for about 10 years. About 50% of the patrons that go there are from the community, and 50% are from the church. We have our families at Impact Center go through counseling services because we realize that homelessness is rooted deeply in trauma. 

There’s a lot of trauma. That’s why a lot of individuals and families are not able to get past the barriers. There are physical barriers, like I have an eviction, or I have an outstanding warrant bill, or I don’t have a job. Those are physical, but there are a lot of mental barriers that keep them there. We like to make sure we take care of the mind. In our mission and vision statement, we talk about a renewed mindset. That means you’ve got to deal with some things you don’t necessarily want to do. 

It’s okay to talk to somebody about your issues. It’s okay to feel vulnerable. I think a lot of times, we don’t want to feel vulnerable. I don’t think our country allows us to feel vulnerable. I don’t think mental health is something they make a priority of, so it is one thing we strive to do. It’s a priority.

Q: How has the stigma around seeking therapy been a barrier, and how are you tackling that?

A: Black African-American single mothers lead 96% of the families we are helping. I know for many of us, back in the day, our families did not consider mental health. You didn’t go to a therapist. It was like, “Why?” Now that we’ve become more cognizant, I try to remove their stigma. We’re giving you the power. We have done in-house visits; let’s say they have some family and friends over. Their family and friends said, “You go to therapy?” They laughed at them. This wasn’t 1950. This was recent. We try to make it an empowering thing. It’s not a bad thing. You take away the stigma and show that it’s okay. 

People often assume you aren’t going through anything just because you dress and look a certain way. That’s a lie. Somebody close to me was hospitalized last year in a mental institution for a week. It was indeed an eye-opener. Now, it’s a fight that I take very seriously. Suppose my kids say, “Hey, Mom, I’m not feeling very well today,” I’m like, “Okay. We can take a mental health day.” I think people think that children don’t go through stuff. I’m tired of that for them. 

I want to create a space, even in my home, where I’m like, “Guys, you have emotions just like any adult.” Kids get mad just like adults; kids have bad days like adults. Sometimes, kids don’t get the benefit of having that bad day because they’re not adults. That’s not fair, so how do we change that? Even with working with our families and those kids, they have bad days. You can have one. It’s okay, especially for generations now. Even when they’re going through the parenting class, they talk about things like that, because people think that kids should be seen and not heard. No, they are to be seen. That’s why they are here. 

We allow them to express themselves in a way that is safe, but also good. I want you to express yourself in a way where you are safe and you know it’s okay. We come from a generation where we couldn’t talk to our parents. We couldn’t ask questions. For me, that’s not safe. I want to create that space for my children. I want families to develop their own space because we’re dealing with generational poverty; have a conversation. “How did we get here?”

Q: What are the different community needs that Serve the World is addressing?

A: We are genuinely advocates for individuals. Many individuals need to learn how to tag their car properly; we will walk you through the steps. We are there to hold your hand and guide you every step of the way. We might go to court with you. We might go to a hearing with you with your child. If you need to be at the school and you need some extra support, we will be there to do that. 

We provide rental assistance and the first month’s rent and deposit for our families, so anybody that comes to the program they’re trying to find a house or an apartment, we will provide that first month’s rent and deposit for them—because let’s face it, having $3000, if you’ve never had that before one time, that’s a significant amount of money. Not everybody will have that, so we try to provide that. Evictions are costly. In Kansas City, the average is about $5,200-$6,000 just for an eviction. I’ve seen more. We help to pay for those evictions and utilities. We have paid a $3000 water bill. It was because the landlord did not want to fix the leak. There was a leak, and the landlord refused to fix it, and he received section 8. We are advocates. 

We like to have those conversations on how to advocate for ourselves. In the job space, we’ve had individuals that didn’t have any benefits, didn’t have a 401(k), and they were able to go back and advocate and say, “I want a 401(k), and this is why I want a 401(k).” Or, “I’m the manager of the store. If I leave, who will you get to do it?” Anything that you can think of that is a life skill, we are there to assist the individuals and build them back up. 

If you rent a home, that means you’ve got yard duty. You must mow the grass, even if we must show them how to do it properly without hurting themselves. You are responsible for lightbulbs. These are the things you’re responsible for. We show them how to do a walk-through, so even when they are getting ready to rent the property, they can go through and notate and take pictures. That way, when it’s time to move out, you have all the information you need, and if they say you don’t get your deposit back, you say, “Here’s my initial walk-through, and you signed off on it.” The biggest thing, I would say, is communication.

Q: What led to the creation of Serve the World?

A: The pastors at the church decided to create an organization because they were doing good work in the community, but churches’ finances don’t work like 501(c)(3)s do, so they wanted to start it so that they could do more work so that they could be an extension of the church. We’re here now doing much more work than they could imagine, trying to do bigger things and hopefully expand.

Q: How has Serve the World evolved since its creation?

A: It has changed drastically since its creation when we were helping in the schools, were mentors, or did community events. We’ve been doing Fireworks and Halloween at Evangel for 10-plus years now. The pantry has been going on for quite a while as well. It was more about community-based needs. There were a few safety-net services. It was, “Here’s what we can do for our community.” But when we added Impact Center, it completely changed the fabric of who we are. I didn’t think it would. Impact Center made us look at things very differently. I think a lot of times, we have rose-colored glasses on. We can’t do that. What we can do is change a life at a time. I have learned a lot. They have taught me a lot. I feel I’m a better person. 

Q: What successes has Serve the World had?

A: We have housed 107 students since 2019. 88% of those families remain housed after one year. There’s a lot of work that has to be done in between. We get them housing for the year so that they can stay in the housing, so that’s where a lot of the life skills and the coaching takes place. 68% of our families are no longer on government assistance. We’ve had individuals get significant raises, too.

Q: What are some of your hopes for Serve the World’s future?

A: If our families need assistance, they often have to go to midtown or downtown. How do you get to those services if you need a car or reliable transportation? A lot of time, South Kansas City gets excluded. Gentrification is coming, it’s happening, and those individuals are being displaced. We saw property taxes increase for individuals whose property taxes went up significantly. There’s no way they’ll be able to pay that, so how do we get more resources out here to prepare for what is coming?

Q: How can people help?

A: Of course, we can use financial donations. Financial contributions are needed since we are trying to expand, do more work, and touch more families. There are always volunteer opportunities. You can volunteer with our pantry, or you can volunteer with Impact Center Schools. You can help with Happy Bottoms. We give out a lot of diapers and pull-ups, so if you want to help with that, I would greatly appreciate it.

To learn more about Serve the World, visit https://servetheworldkc.org/