Local Heroes 2018

Called to Action

The cynics among us hold that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. But the true good-deed-doers of the world recognize that nothing good happens until somebody gets off the couch and takes action.

More than 1.5 million non-profit charities in the U.S. today are meeting social needs, fulfilling civic agendas and community goals, bolstering arts programs and museums, funding scholarships, treating physical or emotional maladies—all because someone was motivated to act. To bring formal structure, and—this is critical—manpower and dollars to achieve noble goals.

Since 2008, Ingram’s has recognized those who act with its annual Local Heroes awards. Ten years after the program’s inception, we continue to be at once amazed and humbled by the ability of Kansas City-area residents to act. This year, for example, we introduce you to:

  • A former advertising executive turned stay-at-home mom who has helped low-income mothers secure nearly 10 million badly needed diapers in 10 years.
  • A former martial-arts expert whose passion for helping orphans has grown into a global enterprise.
  • A retired railroad executive who has found a calling driving thousands of miles a year delivering food-bank donations.A veteran of the War on Hunger who founded a non-profit that has gathered millions of pounds of left-over farm and orchard produce to feed the hungry.
  • A former college baseball star who has provided inner-city youths with both the facilities and the instruction to share his passion for the game.
  • The Jill-of-All-Trades for a program that raises awareness of the dangers that cars—even when they’re not running—can pose to young children.
  • A retired dentist who provides free treatment for residents of a domestic-violence shelter, including reconstruction for battered jawlines.

Each has helped make the Kansas City area a better place to live through their energy, their effort and, at times, their own dollars. And each is owed a debt by the rest of us. A debt that calls out us, as well, to act. Please join us in thanking them for their services.

Rebecca Welsh

It’s the kind of incongruity you rarely hear from the top executive at a thriving organization: “I wish,”  Rebecca Welsh says wistfully, “that they could put us out of business.”

The amorphous “they” she refers to is, basically, an entire world where children are left parentless, starving and dying by the tens of thousands every year, in numbers far exceeding the capacity that her HALO Foundation can accommodate.

But she’s not about to stop trying. War, famine, disease, dictatorship and a great many other self-induced testaments to man’s capacity for inhumanity have produced the need she first perceived right out of the University of Missouri, when she sought to help orphans in Central America as a volunteer, and ended up spending six months with the Mercy Ships charity. An encounter with a small Honduran girl, perhaps 6 years old, lit a spark in Welsh.

Nearly two decades later, that spark is a flame that burns in Jefferson City at a home for two dozen teen mothers, at orphanages in Kenya and Uganda, or youth shelters in India, at the University of Central Missouri, when a past recipient of HALO’s beneficence enrolls for college studies, and beyond. From Welsh’s enduring passion to help children find truly safe spaces in a very unsafe world, the foundation has become an enterprise with a reach that crosses oceans, serving 1,400 at-risk children in six countries.

“I always had an interest in children who were in need,” says Welsh, a native of Jefferson City. “I remember doing a second-grade project on orphans. When I read about orphans, it rocked my world at 7 to know there are kids that didn’t have parents.” From that point forward, she says, every school project that could be centered on children in need would be. “My senior year, I did a 20-page paper on the orphan crisis in China,” she says. “It was always kind of in me.”

She achieved a measure of fame—including the lead role in an independent film—with her proficiency in martial arts. But her work with HALO has given her national exposure with interviews on the Today Show, Variety magazine and other media outlets. Driving her to increase the organization’s reach, mainly through collaborations with like-aligned organizations, was the memory of that Honduran girl she calls Daisy. “At that moment,” Welsh writes in her on-line bio, “I realized I had been blind the first 22 years of my life.”

As HALO continues to grow, it follows a familiar pattern: “Every day with HALO has happened organically,” Welsh says. “We find a need, find out what is going on in that community, then take the next step.” In Kansas City, that will be a refuge for boys too old to be effectively served by the foster-family system, at risk of being turned onto the streets without resources.

“I wish,” Welsh says again, “that this wasn’t a problem. But it is a problem that won’t go away by itself.”

Cle Ross

“Baseball,” Cle Ross declares, “is the one sport that emulates and is a direct reflection of life, because there’s a lot of failure that comes with baseball and a lot of failures that come with life.” The wisdom packed into that philosophical outlook has framed his own life, from his birth in Kansas City, Kan., through his youth in Wellington, Kan., a return to his hometown to rebuild the youth baseball infrastructure there, into his office at the Urban Youth Academy, a Kansas City Royals enterprise where he is, not surprisingly, director of baseball operations.

A record-holder on the baseball teams at North Central Missouri College in Trenton, and at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Ross also applied an entrepreneurial zeal to his life after coming back to this area. Before he turned 30, in fact, he founded Success Achieved in Future Environments (SAFE), a non-profit he used to acquire and rehabilitate the rundown Wyandotte County 3&2 baseball field. That venture connected his passion with the county’s past. “Turns out, Wyandotte County 3&2 had more history than I knew,” Ross says. “From 1947-1998, it was the home to over 2,500 youth annually. This includes former Major League Baseball players Ray Sadecki, David Segui, Damian Rolls, Neil Allen, Steve Renko, and Kevin Young.” After a year of tracking down the owner, Ross says, his non-profit bought it, and has been using it “as an opportunity to grow and share with the community and my family the love I have for the game.”

That love was inspired by watching his older brother and cousin devote their time and energy to sports. “Being able to play with the same group of kids growing up gave me another family that offered the comfort and motivation needed to continue and the ability to keep playing and developing my love for the game,” he says.

That’s a dynamic he works to create daily in his role with the academy, just as it informed his work with SAFE, on behalf of children who have come through some tough circumstances in their young lives. “People who can overcome that adversity can be successful at life,” Ross asys. “I was the first person in my family to receive an associates and bachelor’s degree, but none of that would of happened without the Good Lord giving me a gift to play the game of baseball.  I knew there were several other kids who had a background similar to mine who could use baseball as a vehicle to become educated, and I was right.”

To date, he says, 29 of his charges have gone on to play college baseball or softball, and 15 more played other college sports. But beyond playing, sports offer related careers in scouting, coaching, umpiring or sports journalism-—all paths to success that spring from the playing fields.

Jill Gaikowski

Funny how it works: When you have kids, you want to project your own value set into the future—and find out that they’re reshaping yours at the same time. So it was with Jill Gaikowski after the birth of her daughter Riley. “When I became a mom, it started: What do I want to do in life, what kind of example do I want to set for my daughter?” she recalls. “It happened pretty quickly.”

It, in this case, became HappyBottoms, a non-profit dedicated to helping low-income families and single mothers acquire a basic necessity that many parents take for granted. It was Gaikowski’s first step into the non-profit world as an agent of … well, change. A Lee’s Summit native, she made it to New York in advertising before returning to Kansas City, thinking at times about how much easier a trip to Costco by car was here, compared to a single mother in New York, hauling two kids on the bus to buy over-priced diapers at the corner store. “And I thought: ‘What can I do about it?’” she says. A friend suggested volunteering for a diaper bank in California. “It was the first I’d ever heard of a diaper bank,” Gaikowski said. “But I thought, let’s start something.”

That she did. In 2009, she rounded up seven businesses to help collect 7,000 diapers in seven days. Drawing on her project management and messaging skills and a new concept called social media, she sailed well past her goal with 15,000 diapers collected. Just one teeny little complication: How to distribute 15,000 diapers? So it was back to the conceptual board, brainstorming over agencies that could benefit, identifying eight that fit the model, and introducing her toddler to math. “She used to help me get diapers ready—that’s how I taught her to count!” Gaikowski says.

As it started to grow, she turned the charity over to a pair of seasoned non-profit administrators and took a leadership role at a non-profit in Minnesota, her first step into administration in that world. After two years, she came back to Kansas City in 2013 and joined HappyBottoms as executive director.

“At any non-profit serving young families, diapers are the most-requested items,” Gaikowski says. But a decade ago, “nobody was formalizing it,” even at organizations serving needy kids. Today, far more data is available on the need, and on the needy themselves, helping target efforts for efficient delivery. Come January, HappyBottoms will distribute its 10 millionth diaper, an average of more than 1 million a year since it started. “Our strategics are to grow; we want to reach more children, we want to meet 60 percent of the need by 2021,” Gaikowski says. “Something we need to do that is look for larger space to get into, so we can handle that volume.” With that success, she says, “my mind is blown every day that I started this and that it’s gotten to this point.”

Dan Ryder

Texas-born and Texas-educated, Dan Ryder didn’t stray too far from the Lone Star State for his 33-year dentistry career, making his practice in Russellville, Ark. The prospects of becoming a Kansas City-area resident improved considerably, though, after his two adult children ended up relocating to Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit in 2004 and 2008. When retirement beckoned, it was an easy call for Dan and Allison: “Obviously, this is the place to be!” he beams, especially since their children “agreed to ‘let us join them here.” And that is how the residents of Hope House, the domestic-violence shelter and services provider, ended up with high-level care that they uniformly say is delivered with patience, kindness and caring. “A few years before retiring, I was fortunate to help establish the dental clinic portion of River Valley Christian Clinic in Dardanelle, Ark.,” Ryder says. “My experience there was very positive, so I wanted to continue doing some charitable work in retirement.” But the road to Hope House, he says, started on a mission trip to—of all places—Jamaica. Through the never-ending power of collaboration, trip directors recommended that he talk with Bridget McCandless, the former director of a free-health care clinic in Independence, about the possibility of setting up a dental arm of her medical mission outreach. McCandless, in turn, contacted  Mary Ann Matheny at Hope House. “It just so happened that a dental clinic had just been put into the Hope House Independence facility,” Ryder says. “It has been a wonderful match for me.”

There’s no getting around the kinds of hard dental cases that present themselves at the shelter, but every case there, Ryder says, requires a certain sensitivity. “There certainly have been some patients that needed us care givers to take time to earn their trust,” says Ryder, who also volunteers at the Medical Mission for Christ clinic in Camdenton, Mo. “I have the opportunity to help with dental needs, but there also is the awesome opportunity to say that someone cares unconditionally and just wants to help. Personally,  great satisfaction comes from finishing treatment and seeing in their eyes the thanks that they were treated well in addition to receiving a good professional service.” His work provides a level of personal return that couldn’t be measured in dollars. “Volunteering my professional services in general is rewarding; doing so at Hope House to women (mostly) who have been abused in some way is personally and professionally rewarding beyond anything I could have imagined,” he says. “To those who might be thinking about this sort of commitment I say: Do It!  You will be proud that you did; your contribution will be more than you can know.”

Margie Rollins 

For Margie Rollins, the motivation is simple: She is compelled to volunteer at various organizations, she says, “because I feel passionately about helping those who cannot help themselves.”

And a subset of that group that’s especially near her heart are young children who may otherwise be happy, healthy and normal in every way—and still at risk of serious injury or death from something right out in the driveway: The family car. Moving or sitting idle, a two-ton piece of machinery poses risks that range from backovers to entrapment in trunks or power windows, carbon monoxide poisoning, heat stroke, seatbelt strangulation—even abduction by carjacking. And that’s before you factor in teen drivers in the family, winter road conditions or proper installation of child safety and booster seats.

That child-focused mission is a big reason why Rollins has become a fixture in the Kansas City offices of KidsAndCars.org, which advocates for child-safe vehicle standards and practices. Another reason: “My daughter, Amber, is director” of the non-profit, Rollins says.

A native of Pleasanton, in the Kansas exurbs of the Kansas City area, Rollins earned a degree in business education from what is now Pittsburg State University, and went to work at Hallmark in Kansas City, then the Safeway grocery chain in San Francisco. She came back to Kansas City to raise her two daughters, one of them with special needs, and is retired today, along with her husband. That has opened up time to dive into a diverse set of volunteer experiences.

Among them, she’s been an angel-care provider working within the special-needs ministry at Church of the Resurrection. She also has worked with the cat side of operations at Wayside Waifs, serves as group house liaison for Life Centers of Kansas (her special-needs daughter’s group house), has been involved with Special Olympics for 20 years, and is part of a women’s group committed to doing random acts of kindness throughout the year.

KidsAndCars has been a primary concern, and there, she has worked to build the organization’s data base, has been the person responsible for filling orders of educational materials that are mailed throughout the U.S., and has been a go-to0 fixture helping to organize fund-raising sales and media events. 

“There is so much need in our world today,” Rollins says. “I volunteer because I love to make a difference in the lives of others, and it makes me feel good. At the end of each day, I want in some small way to feel that I have helped to make the world a better place.”

Dominic Ring

After a career in the rail industry, Dominic Ring retired with a fair amount of knowledge about moving freight. These days, he’s doing a lot of it for Harvesters-The Community Food Network, which leads the way in regional efforts to feed the homeless and hungry in our midst.

In 2012, after wrapping up his work as general director of labor relations for Union Pacific Railroad, he and his wife, Denise, returned to the Kansas City area. “We discussed that we would like to begin volunteering in the community and looked around to see what we thought would be a good fit,” says Ring. Throughout his working days, he says, “I was really not engaged in a lot of corporate philanthropy. Mostly, donating to  United Way through payroll deduction” and occasional brushes with company-sponsored initiatives, such as volunteer advisory roles with Junior Achievement. But with extra time on his hands, he was looking for a deeper level of engagement.

He found it. Last year, by Harvesters count, Ring logged 12,000 miles behind the wheel of a food-collection van, gathering in blue bins of canned goods, produce and other non-perishables collected by various companies, schools, restaurants and organizations sponsoring their food drives. Among the 6,500 volunteers aligned with Harvesters, Ring logged more hours than anyone last year.

What made Harvesters the right choice? “We had donated periodically to the Food Bank in Omaha along with other charities” during their 25 years there, Ring says. “After hearing about Harvesters and its mission, we started donating money to Harvesters. Since we both believe that hunger is something that needs to be addressed, we opted to see if there were volunteer opportunities.”

That started with regular trips to the distribution center to box food items, then to Harvesters Project Strength and Backsnack program for at-risk youth in schools. “This evolved into making deliveries and pickups for the food services group, two days a week, where the regular drivers would have a hard time accessing with their larger truck,” says Ring, a native of Maryville, Kan., who earned his college degree at Rockhurst College. The Backsnack program is a favorite activity, he says. “Knowing that one is able to help with combating childhood hunger is a good feeling.”

And it’s one, he says, that leaves him “humbled at the attitude of the people of Kansas City who I come in contact with and their generosity.  … Not everyone has been afforded the opportunity to be as fortunate as we have. I do not believe I do anything special, and I am being accorded the opportunity to do something that I want to do.” And it’s something anyone can do, he says. “Even if volunteering is only a few hours a month boxing food products, it all helps.”

Lisa Ousley 

Lisa Ousley fashioned a career in communications, working in writing, editing and corporate communications roles before taking on Web-based news and communications duties for a non-profit association. Then, life took a career turn and she found work that would ignite a new passion: feeding the hungry. It started with Virginia-based Society of St Andrew, which had raised the concept of food gleaning to a national scale.

It’s a testament to this nation’s level of agricultural productivity that millions of tons of perfectly edible and nutritious produce are left in the fields and orchards after harvest, simply for cosmetic reasons. The society’ faith-based mission addressed the potential and promise of gathering in that second harvest. But it wasn’t, to use the modern vernacular, as inclusive as it could have been.

“SoSA’s religious affiliations hindered our ability to work with faith congregations from outside the Christian faith,” Ousley says. “We also had challenges keeping local all the funds that we were raising locally, because we were required to send funding to SoSA’s headquarters.” In December 2103, a small subset of the group’s advisory board started talking about establishing a new, locally owned, locally focused non-profit, which would become After the Harvest–Healthy Food for Hungry People.

“We believed from the start that we would be able to provide more fresh produce for hungry people in our community as our own, locally funded and locally focused nonprofit, and we have since proven that to be true,” says Ousley, the offshoot’s executive director. For recipients, the work is filling; for Ousley, it’s fulfilling. “I love this work,” she says. “Every day gives us an opportunity to make meaningful change in the lives of people in our community.”

In six years with the society, she was part of an effort that fought hunger, malnutrition and food waste by hauling in 15 million pounds of fresh produce. Now, 4 ears after its founding, After the Harvest is on the verge of matching that output. “This organization was started by a terrific team of passionate, committed people, and it continues today because of the people involved and the relationships we’ve built,” Ousley says. “The fresh produce ATH provides is the best and most nourishing food a body can eat.”

It may not meet grade-A Fancy standards for size, shape and surface imperfections, she says, but “our produce provides nutrition that would otherwise be scarce in the diets of low-income families, children and seniors who are struggling with poverty and food insecurity. By providing fresh produce free to low-income people, ATH also plays a key role in the reduction of diet-driven illnesses such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes among at-risk populations.”