LOCAL HEROES: Class of 2016

When Two Become One, in Living and Giving

By Jim Moore


    Ask anyone in the not-for-profit world and they’ll tell you that teamwork is essential to fulfilling the mission of his or her organization.

    We’ve found that the same thing holds true for their benefactors, as well.

    This year, Local Heroes honors seven couples who help make the Kansas City region the great and giving community it is. Each makes a great team—selecting causes, donating to them, and putting in the personal time it takes to see those causes succeed.

    From caring for at-risk children, to helping others find homes, to reaching out to the grieving, to funding heart research, to providing for military veterans, to helping teenagers achieve their dreams, to keeping beloved Kansas City traditions alive, and more, the 14 members of our Local Heroes Class of 2016 represent the best of us … and in us.

    We present them to you as examples to us all of what the word “neighbor” can mean when the person it refers to has an empathetic heart, a generous spirit and a desire to act on behalf of others.

    As you read, odds are very good that you’ll see reflections of people you know and admire for their dedication to causes, and that other readers will be reminded of you. We believe that because we agreed when one of this year’s honorees said, “When the call is put out to help your neighbor, time and time again, Kansas City responds.”


    How do you handle a memory that is both unforgettably precious and unmercifully painful? This pair of medical doctors turned theirs into an effort to help others.

    Kathy and Kirk lost their 4-month-old son, Devon, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). “The hardest thing for us to deal with,” says Kathy, “is that we couldn’t save Devon, despite doing CPR and despite doing everything right—no co-sleeping, no smoking, no blankets. All those things can reduce risk, but there is no such thing as SIDS prevention.”

    Where some might be tempted to run from such a memory, Kathy and Kirk decided to run for it, establishing “A Divine Run”—a 5-kilometer race designed to raise awareness of SIDS and to fund a SIDS-focused organization.

    Why a 5K? Kathy explains: “Both of us are runners and a 5K is an event that anyone can participate in. We have runners, walkers, walker-assist and wheelchair participants.  Over the last six races, we have gathered more than 1,500 people at our events.”

    A Divine Run has raised more than $125,000 for SIDS Resources, a group promoting SIDS risk reduction and providing grief support to families.

    According to executive director, Lori Behrens, the group is grateful for more than just the Hances’ fund-raising: “The Hance family has humbly and tirelessly honored Devon’s memory in service to others. Kathy and Kirk are also willing to be called upon to support others who have experienced the tragedy of SIDS.”

    Sharing their experience is important, because no one connects with a parent who loses a child to SIDS quite like one who has lived that pain personally. Kathy encourages grieving parents to be patient with others who mean well, but just don’t understand: “While there are many people who offer platitudes, there are others who will step forward and truly be supportive. My favorite people are the ones who acknowledge, ‘I have no idea what you are going through, but I want to help.’ Because it’s true—they have no idea what it is like to have their child die. It is unimaginable, until it happens.”

    Patience with oneself is also important. As the Hances have discovered, the impact of a child’s death is so profound that experts consider it a wholly unique category of grieving.

    The point of it all for Kathy, Kirk, Devon’s older sister Kylie, and the three children the family has been blessed with since Devon, is to tell the story of his brief life with the goal of raising awareness of SIDS and support for the resources needed to fight it.

    In the words of Devon’s mom: “SIDS is one of the great unknowns and has been for centuries.  Through improving awareness and support for research, our hope is that it will become obsolete in our lifetime.”



    On a Saturday evening in August of 2011, Dale and Megan Duncan heard their doorbell. Two uniformed military officers were on their doorstep—a chilling sight for the family of a deployed soldier.

    More than 7,000 miles away, the oldest of their three sons, Army Specialist Spencer Colson Duncan, had been killed in action. The Chinook helicopter on which he was serving as door gunner was shot down, killing all 38 people aboard in the largest single loss of life in the Afghanistan conflict.

    Megan remembers, “Every morning I woke up, I was kind of surprised that I didn’t die, because my heart was so broken.” But taking strength from the example of other mothers who have experienced such loss, she came to understand, “OK. This is our mandate. We’re going have to reach out to the next person this happens to.”

    Today, reaching out is their way of life. Through Survivor Outreach Services at Fort Leavenworth, the Duncans walk with other families who have lost loved ones, and they support veterans with funds raised through an annual 5K event they organize in memory of their son.

    To the Duncans’ surprise, their attempt to “test the waters a little” with a 5K was an immediate success.  Dale recalls the first event with amazement, “We had 535 people there registered for the first run. Suddenly, through donors and sponsors we were able to give away $21,000 dollars.”

    Dale says it was good for the family, too: “It was hard to imagine ourselves being out there in the public eye. But that run kind of put us there, and the thing about it was that we found ways to provide healing for ourselves by allowing other people to see us and to hear the story.”

    And the giving from this all-volunteer organization continues, year after year. Dale, who earns his living as managing partner in an architecture firm, says the foundation has raised more than $250,000.

    Among the organizations they’ve supported are Heart of America Stand Down, dedicated to helping homeless and marginalized veterans, St. Michael’s Veterans Center, an apartment community for homeless vets and those at risk of becoming homeless, and Warrior’s Ascent, a program of healing for veterans and first responders. They’ve also funded hundreds of $500 book scholarships for veterans at local colleges and universities to help pay for books not covered by the GI Bill.

    “We met a gentleman who could finish nursing school and change the course of his family because of that $500 book scholarship,” Megan happily recalls.

    Megan is also confident that the help their foundation provides is paid forward: “I’ve never seen a veteran get help that hasn’t turned around to help another veteran.”


lori-and-randy-ross-3LORI AND RANDY ROSS

    Ask Lori and Randy to show you pictures of their kids and you might find yourself pretty busy. They’ve foster-parented more than 400, adopted 23 and brought five into the family the old-fashioned way.

    They were 20 years old, with their own little girl, when they fostered their first child—a six-year-old with a history of abuse who had been in six other foster homes. The Rosses say she probably taught them more about life than any child who came after her.

    “They didn’t give us a playbook,” Randy recalls, “The first couple of years, it was a lot of work, a lot of new stuff.”

    “She was a baptism by fire for us,” Lori says of the cherubic but a troubled little girl with speech problems that needed addressing. But with care, persistence, personal effort and, as Lori puts it, being young and “too dumb to know that we were in over our heads,” that little girl no longer needed speech therapy by the time she went to first grade.

    And so, their fostering and adoption journey began.

    After about 14 years, Lori and Randy discovered a small support-group of foster and adoptive parents that turned out to be a blessing on several levels. Says Randy, “None of our normal friends wanted to hang around with us because our house was always so wild. Once we connected with these other foster parents, at least it was crazy across the board. It became more normal to have friends that were going through what we were going through.”

    Recognizing the Rosses’ wealth of experience, the group encouraged them to assume leadership; within two years, participating families had grown from 20 to 400. Today, that group is a full-fledged organization called FosterAdopt Connect, providing services to about half the children who come into Missouri’s foster care system.

    Lori says their organization’s firsthand experience is what makes it special: “We see the problems that the system—the safety net—doesn’t catch, so we develop unique programs to address those problems.” For instance, rather than competing with big organizations for overarching foster care contracts, FosterAdopt Connect will specialize in an area like placing older kids who have difficulty finding adoptive homes.

    And there’s a role for everyone who wants one, according to Lori: “These kids belong to our community, and from the family that lives in the itty-bitty house and is willing to take in one foster child to the guy running the Fortune 500 company, everybody can do something that is going to make a difference for these kids.”

    Is it worth it? Let’s ask Randy: “I’ll be out running around the city and I’ll have somebody that we fostered years ago come up to me and say, ‘You know, you were the best foster dad I ever had.’ Talk about making your week or your month!”


neal-jean-335_0849_img_0903-3274999827-oJEANNE AND NEAL PATTERSON

    Jeanne and Neal have a well-deserved reputation for putting the financial fruits of their success to work in service of others.

    Probably the most visible example of that is First Hand Foundation, an international children’s medical charity founded with Cerner Corp. partner, Cliff Illig.

    Jeanne—known for pouring tons of energy into First Hand—once described the motivation behind it this way: “Inside Cerner, there’s a soul, there’s a strong soul. You can feel it—the chemistry, the altruism.” Praising the many at Cerner who join in the foundation’s work, she adds, “I don’t think we’d be near the corporation we are today without that dimension to us.”

    The Pattersons’ multifaceted philanthropy also includes wholehearted support of the American Royal. A Royal board member told Ingram’s that this quintessential Kansas City institution might have ceased to exist were it not for Jeanne and Neal: “They recruit board members, lead by example, and underwrite much of the American Royal. They support the youth livestock auction to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars that go to the children showing the animals.”

    A lot of the Pattersons’ affection for the Royal has to do with Neal being “a farm boy from Oklahoma.” When their children were young, he enjoyed bringing them to see other youngsters competing; having raised livestock, he appreciates the tremendous work ethic of young livestock exhibitors.

    But the importance of the Royal goes even deeper. “Kansas City is the epicenter of the country and the gate to the Great Plains,” Neal says. “We should be the place that celebrates agriculture and advances it through engaging events like the ones that happen during the American Royal.”

    That said, Neal adds that the Royal is about more than regional pride: “Just as other countries have developed national celebrations of agriculture in previous eras, the American Royal is America’s national celebration.”

    Another person close to the Pattersons says Neal also enjoys the urban-rural connection the Royal forges and the effects brought about by that encounter—some of them cultural, some of them financial. “It brings competitors from all over the country to our community and that has a big economic impact,” Neal says.  “A typical convention attendee is in and out—just a couple of nights in a hotel and a few dinners. When you bring an animal to town, you bring a team of people with it who stay for most of the week.” 

    And of course, amid all the cultural celebration and economic stimulation, the Royal is also about pure, simple, wonderful fun—as shown in a memory Jeanne shared: “K-State used to bring in a sow and we would put a webcam nearby when she gave birth—the Pig Cam. For a period of time, it was the most popular webcam in Kansas City.”



    Less than two years after Mary Lynn and Kamal were married, Kamal was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy—an enlarging of the heart that proves fatal, once efforts to hold it at bay have been exhausted. “I was treated with medication and a pacemaker/defibrillator,” Kamal recalls. “I could function but still had a lot of pain and ache.”

    Eventually, he had only one avenue left—replacing his failing heart with either a mechanical one or a heart transplant; the difficulty in maintaining mechanical hearts makes transplant the much-preferred option. Kamal recalls, “I told my wife that perhaps she needed to take me someplace where they are very qualified in that respect. I didn’t think Kansas City was the destination for something like this.”

    That was before they discovered Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, one of the  nation’s top 10 centers for adult heart transplants. “Unless you’re really sick, I don’t think you really understand what’s here,” says Mary Lynn, “a group of professionals and a group of researchers that are, bar none, some of the top in the nation.”

    Mary Lynn is particularly impressed by the concern she has witnessed for the people on both sides of the transplant equation. She says the team seeks to “honor the person who has so graciously donated” by striving for the best possible survival rate for the recipient: “In Kansas City, we have some the best, if not the best survival rates, due to Dr. Borkon and his team.”

    Michael Borkon is the Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute surgeon who performed Kamal’s transplant. He calls the Mikhails a perfect example of “the transplant life,” which he says is more about giving than getting. As he puts it, “Transplant exists because of donors making probably the most unselfish gift any of us can make. Then the transplant recipients give it back. Kamal and Mary Lynn are giving it back and paying it forward in every way you can. They’re leaders. Leadership is all about stepping forward to shed light and they’re doing a great, great job.”

    The Mikhails have become ardent supporters of The Cardiac Surgery & Transplant Research Scholar Fund, which exists to give students an opportunity to assist Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute with research and publishing, earning them credentials that will help in opening post-medical school doors.

    For Kamal, supporting research is key to increasing awareness: “I want to make people in our community aware that we have in the midst of us a great organization working on an issue that touches most people, their family or friends; if you want to enjoy life, you need a good heart.”

    Mary Lynn adds that the fight against heart disease is an important thing for people to prioritize in their annual charitable giving: “You can give a lot of money to the arts—that’s where the huge amount of philanthropy goes—but you can’t enjoy those arts unless you’re healthy.’’



    Christian Weld-Brown remembers a question from a marriage preparation class: “They asked us what we wanted to pray for in our marriage. What did we want more than anything else? And we said, ‘Passion.’” They were referring to a passion for doing important things and enthusiasm for whatever they did.

    In their worldview—formed in large part by lessons in service learned at St. Teresa’s Academy and Rockhurst High School, respectively (the Browns met as teenagers)—the opportunity to help others was a significant part of that prayer.

    Their prayer has since been answered in a big way. The Browns have passionately supported quite a number of causes around Kansas City, including Spofford, a home providing for children suffering the effects of abuse, neglect or early onset mental illness.

    Christian and Jim were co-chair-couple for Spofford’s 2016 gala. Their leadership, and the creative support of colleagues at Muller Bressler Brown advertising (MBB+), helped Spofford achieve a 23-percent increase in 2016 revenue. “Fortunately, the staff is as enthusiastic about Kansas City as we are,” Jim says about the MBB+ team.

    One of the many satisfying things for Jim about supporting Spofford is helping kids find something approaching the stability he and Christian enjoyed with their parents: “You can tell that they appreciate the environment that they’re in. They’re free to act like children. They get to model normal relationships between peers and normal relationships between adult figures.”

    “Some of those kids have been through six or seven foster homes,” Christian points out. “There’s a case to be made that others have given up on them. Not just their own parents. Others have tried and haven’t found success.”

    Christian is moved by the differences between Spofford’s children and her own growing up: “Things as simple as just learning how to play again. They really don’t know how to. It makes a huge difference and you really don’t think about things as simple as that. It really puts things in perspective when you look at how difficult it is for them.”

    The Browns’ teenage children (two girls and a boy) have learned well from Mom and Dad’s example of service, pitching in eagerly with the Spofford gala. “They volunteered to do a lot of the manual labor that goes along with an event like that,” says Jim, “from set-up to clean-up.”

    Jim points out that the time to help children like those at Spofford is now: “Do you want to give them a fighting chance or do you want to deal with them down the line, when their spirits are so broken and their fortunes are so bleak that they turn to crime? We’re going to deal with this one way or the other.”



    Bonnie and Herb Buchbinder came here from New York in 1972 and never regretted it. Bonnie remembers Herb answering a Wall Street Journal ad for a Midwest firm: “We thought it was Minneapolis, Chicago or Milwaukee, and the Midwest turned out to be Kansas City.”

    That interview led to a visit, during which Kansas City, as it does so often with transplants from the coasts, won Herb over. Relocation became even more attractive when Bonnie came home one day to find their New York apartment burglarized. “I pleaded with them to hire me!” Herb recalls.

    Herb says that Kansas City has treated his family well; today, he works for Stifel, a brokerage and investment banking firm. “Kansas City is just a great place to be,” he says, “and I like to give back to the community that gave me quite a bit.”

    Bonnie and Herb have a lot of grateful friends: Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, Children’s Mercy, Kansas City Zoo, KU athletics, Operation Breakthrough, Rose Brooks Center, The World War I Museum, Truman Library, and UMKC Athletics, among others. Add in everything the Buchbinders support through the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, and the incredible scope of their philanthropy becomes quite evident.

    The most high-profile of their efforts is probably KC SuperStar, an “American Idol”-styled competition that awards scholarships, including the first-place $10,000 Edward & Ellen Rose Family Scholarship, to high-school-age performers from the KC Metro. Proceeds, which reach upward of $1 million, also benefit Children’s Mercy Hospital and the Jewish Community Center, which hosts the event.

    Bringing opportunity into a student’s life is a great source of joy. “Sometimes,” Herb says, “you get inner city kids, where a $10,000 scholarship can be the difference between whether they’re going to college or not. That’s really a great thing to see.”

    Bonnie says there’s also a sense of pride in the kids whose lives they’ve touched: “One of our superstar kids is in the company that’s doing Book of Mormon this week downtown.”

    ust as generous with time as with money, Herb is known for working the phones to get people excited about the causes he supports. Of the $1 million-plus that KC SuperStar brought in this year, Herb estimates that he raised about half of it on his own.

    “I guess I’ve become kind of a relentless fund-raiser. When people get a phone call from me, they shiver,” he says with a chuckle. “In fact, some people just give me the money before I even ask, just so I don’t ask for more!”

    The desire to give back, and the will to do so, is a whole-family attitude in the Buchbinders’ orbit. Bonnie, who also volunteers with Catholic Charities out of gratitude for their help in adopting one of their sons, proudly says of the men she’s rasied: “They’ve seen what their father has done and they’ve picked up on it and they’re following through.”