Breaking the Mold: Working Together
Five years ago, I received a special invitation to meet with some well-intentioned leaders of our city. When I arrived, they were quick to the point. New developments for potential redevelopment of the North Topeka area were being explored. Sadly, a homeless shelter centered in the middle was not part of the blueprint. To them, the Mission would impede the success of future plans and they were asking me to seriously consider relocating our operations.
I was surprised and asked them the first questions that came to my mind. Where did they plan on relocating us to? And, were they aware of the costs involved with such an endeavor? Both of my inquiries returned silent response. I reminded them that the Mission had never asked the City for money. If we were to move at their request, however, they would have to provide the funds necessary; funds that would range between $10-20 million. Their once confident faces became forlorn.
I knew that the development and revitalization of districts in other cities had not typically included a homeless shelter in the midst. Yet I posed the question to the group, “What if we broke the molds of tradition and worked together to make the efforts work?” My listeners were intrigued. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we looked at this as an opportunity to coexist by sharing compassion to individuals and families while developing business?” If we could become successful in doing that, we might find ourselves in a position one day to not only demonstrate to ourselves that it was possible, but also to other cities in our nation who have struggled in similar areas.
I was reminded of the relationship between the Topeka Rescue Mission and neighboring Great Overland Station. While there were questions at first, over time we were able to prove that it was both refreshing and exciting to be able to work together in such a unique way. To this day, the Mission and the Great Overland Station have a very positive relationship. Why couldn’t the same type of relationship be established with the new developments
Sometime after this meeting, a new group called Heartland Visioning was formed consisting of leaders from all sectors of the community. I was assigned to a task force within the group whose aim was to explore ways to enhance the quality of life within our city. The team consisted of diverse individuals whose interests ranged from arts, culture and entertainment to social services and public safety. Though our mindsets and focuses were completely different, an extremely unique and astonishing chemistry began to almost immediately form. As we continued to work together the concept of NOTO was birthed: a district that would focus on the arts which would complement the expansion efforts of the Great Overland Station and the further development of the Mission. While I was excited about the possibilities coming forth, I had some concerns. I shared with the team of the previous apprehensions that had been brought to me from others who didn’t feel the Mission was in the right location. Everyone shook their heads and disagreed. The unanimous response came, “The Mission has to be part.” NOTO co-leaders Anita Wolgast and John Hunter even shared that they wanted to collaborate with the Mission and partner in appropriate ways, just as the Great Overland Station had done.
As the development of the NOTO District began taking shape, artists from the community immediately began gravitating towards the Mission. Their hearts had been opened to reach out and they were eager to do so through the arts. A special afterschool project for the children living at the Hope Center began and new methods of creativity and exploration were introduced. Some of the children were even privileged to help design the Kansas Christmas tree ornament that hung on the national tree in Washington, DC. New opportunities for adult guests also arose and some were hired as employees in the new businesses being opened.
Debbie was one of the guests of the Mission to become hired and she still today remains a productive part of the Robucks Jewelry business (located in the NOTO District). “We’re very happy she’s on this team and have lots of confidence in her,” store owner Charlene Robuck shares. Debbie loves and enjoys the work that she now does as part of the NOTO District and knows that as a result, her confidence has grown.
Within a year of developments coming forth in North Topeka, we were able to recognize that it represented a composite picture of what Topeka really is: a unique place of compassion that embraces social services, is concerned about community safety, and celebrates arts, culture and entertainment. A heightened sense of community throughout our city and county had been formed. We had proven to ourselves locally that such coexistence could be established and were ready for the awareness to be spread nationally for other communities to follow.
In 2011, the head of the National Endowment of the Arts heard of the work going on and decided to come and visit firsthand. He witnessed the unique relationships that had been developed and went on nationally to share of the distinct model that Topeka had in place. Since that time, other cities and states have called inquiring about the collaborations that had formed and how they could mirror similar objectives in their own communities. Articles have also been published in the New York Times and other major media outlets. Our country is now seeing that there no longer needs to be a segregation of efforts between social services and other community endeavors, but that the two can come together to effectively provide opportunities for everyone.
Indeed a remarkable thing has happened in our city. An avenue that was once rarely traveled has become a welcomed destination for cultural entertainment, business and life. The ministry of the Mission, which was not long ago thought of as being a threat to the futuristic developments being discussed, has now become an integral part of the community that has been formed.
I could have never imagined the doors that the Lord would open on our behalf when I stepped into the role of Executive Director 26 years ago. Daily, I feel blessed at the opportunity to oversee a ministry that has been placed in a community of such love and compassion. What an honor it has been to witness and experience this firsthand by so many of our neighbors and others who care about those who are homeless and in need.
Whatever role you have played by opening up your heart and embracing those in need, thank you. Thank you for taking the time to care and to make our community what it is today. The Mission is proud to be a part and we look forward with anticipation of more great opportunities in the future.