Kansas City nonprofit changing teachers’ and students’ lives, $10,000 donation at a time | Opinion

Robin Smith covered her eyes with both hands and tried to hold back tears. Bless her heart — she couldn’t.

Overwhelmed with emotion, Smith, lead pre-K teacher at Grace United Community Ministries in Kansas City’s historic Northeast neighborhood, wept quietly.

She cried for good reason, too.

Be Great Together, a Kansas City nonprofit, presented the church’s pre-K program with a generous donation — a $10,000 gift for exceptional work with young children under its care, according to Be Great co-founder Avrell Stokes.

The presentation was a surprise. The generosity was appreciated.

“This is so amazing,” Smith said. “You just don’t know how far this will go.”

For nearly a week, all program director Lori Theus would tell staff was that visitors from a Missouri oversight agency would be there for a follow-up inspection. It was all a ruse.

“She’s a great secret keeper,” executive director Jesse Barnes said. Theus beamed. “I kept it really good,” she said.

Even as visitors ushered their way into a cramped classroom Thursday morning, Smith had no clue about the smoke screen unfolding before her. Only after Stokes announced the donation did Smith and others left in the dark realize what was going on. Then the tears came.

To me, the moment is what the holiday season is all about: Giving to and gifting others in need. And 10 grand can go a long way in funding field trips, supplies and other needs for the children enrolled in the program, Smith said.

“This is really a blessing,” she said.

Quick pause: I cannot say enough about the well-mannered children that sat through this impromptu gathering. Not one child cried, acted up or complained about sharing space with a room full of strangers. Each sat cordially on a mat during the visit. All took part in a group photo shoot with little fuss.

Later in the day, a 4th-grade class at Center Elementary School in south Kansas City exhibited the same exemplary behavior as adults overtook their classroom with cameras and an oversized replica check. Parents, teachers and administrators at each of these schools should be proud.

At Grace United, co-workers Christine Glasgow and Mary Helen Alexander Allen and Barnes stood next to Smith. Barnes turned to Smith and said: “I’m not going to be like you; I can’t cry today.”

The adults in the room laughed.

“We are so very thankful,” Barnes said.

Co-founder worked in healthcare

Stokes’ background is in public health. In 2013, he obtained a master’s degree in that field from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, according to his bio on Linkedin.

From 2013-16, Stokes worked as a consultant for the healthcare giant formerly known as Cerner Corp long before it was bought out by tech company Oracle. He later partnered with Kansas City Public Schools as a consultant to help high school students learn leadership, organizing and civic engagement skills.

In 2020, Stokes helped start Be Great Together. Because of his work in public schools, he saw a gap in what students and teachers needed in the classroom and a lack of funding.

In 2021, the organization went to work to secure financial contributions from community partners. Be Great Together also wanted to change what some perceive as a negative narrative associated with public schools in the Kansas City area.

Good teachers and great programs need a spotlight, platform, and most importantly, funding, Stokes told me. He wasn’t wrong.

To date, the non-profit has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to support school programs and teachers in Kansas City’s urban core, according to Stokes. Thursday marked the first time a pre-K program was nominated as a benefactor.

KC non-profit gifts $30,000 to schools

On Thursday, Stokes day started early. Between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. he presented $10,000 checks to three schools — Grace United, Northeast High School and Center Elementary School.

Joining Stokes on some of the stops were representatives from the Hall Family and Health Forward foundations and several area businesses including Tribe Street Kitchen in Kansas City’s River Market area and Snooze an A.M. Eatery in Westport, he said.

Other reps from financial supporters joined them.

Tears, smiles and pure joy were common themes at each stop, said Bobby Morris, executive chef for Tribe Street Kitchen. Morris had only planned to attend the first stop at Northeast. He ended up at all three schools while I tagged along to Grace United and Center Elementary.

“After the first one, I thought, I’ve got to go to the second one,” Morris said. “After the second one, I had to come to the third.”

Morris went on to describe some of the emotional reactions he witnessed on Thursday at each site as amazing.

I’d find it hard to disagree.