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Their finest hour: Coming together for children and families

With schools closed during the pandemic, an alliance of nonprofit leaders showed quiet heroics by taking the risk to set up learning centers without funding in place, or an end in sight.

Written and Produced by Matthew Pozel
Photography by Christopher Smith
Audio by Matthew Long

During the final week of the school year, just before the recent Memorial Day weekend in Kansas City, news regarding the coronavirus in the United States had taken a positive turn. New cases were trending down, nearly half of the nation’s adults were fully vaccinated, and mask and social-distancing requirements were beginning to ease. There was hope that warm summer nights would come with the promise that we could stir awake from a long nightmare of disease and isolation.

But as the country was recording some of the lowest COVID-19 metrics in nearly a year, five nonprofit leaders in Kansas City were remembering the darkest days of the global health crisis that prompted them to band together in a desperate and risky alliance. They formed and somehow found funding for the Out-of-School-Time Collaborative that would allow them to open locations around the city where young people could stay all day, be safe, and continue to learn.

Raising the alarm

When the pandemic took hold across the country in the spring of 2020, schools closed with very little notice. By early summer it was becoming apparent that schools may not be able to open in the fall and a report by McKinsey & Company projected that students from economically vulnerable households could lose more than a year of learning. Community leaders in Kansas City began raising the alarm that an education and childcare crisis was looming.

“We had to basically raise over $100,000 a week…. We [were] turning over every cushion in this city to raise this funding.”
Mike English, Founding Executive Director, Turn the Page KC

As the scope of the pandemic intensified through the summer of 2020, Erin Balleine with Camp Fire Heartland, Tonia Gilbert of  Upper Room, Dred Scott with Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City,  Steve Scraggs representing the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, and Mike English of Turn the Page KC, were each wondering what the future would be for students if schools shifted to online learning in September.

“We knew that there were going to be hundreds and thousands of families in Kansas City that were going to have a real problem on their hands,” said Mike English. “Parents are going to have to go back to work and when they do, what are they going to do when their kids have no place to go?”

The Missouri School Board Association raised the stakes when it published recommendations that schools should prepare to go to a virtual format in the fall. “When I read that I thought if that really happens, the social inequities are going to be dire. We’ve got to figure out a plan for this,” said Erin Balleine. “I couldn’t find a solution unless we stepped in.”

A plan to come together

“Erin outlined a way to provide full-day child care and social and emotional support for as many kids as possible,” English said. “She was calling other after-school programs saying, ‘Would you also be willing to consider opening up during the school day?’”

Using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Balleine determined that nine children and one adult could be together in pods of 10. Her document, dated June 14, 2020, went on to outline details for safely operating learning sites. The need was far greater than any one organization could address, so she began making phone calls to nonprofits that had experience offering traditional before-school and after-school care and running summer programs. She also checked with funders who supported the idea of forming a collaborative with a single plan and one funding request.

“We knew that the social inequities that were going to come out of this pandemic were going to be extreme, and if we didn’t do something, I mean, it could be tragic.”
Erin Balleine, Executive Director, Camp Fire Heartland

Unchartered territory

With the centers run by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City closed, Dred Scott was resigned and restless working at his kitchen table when he got the call. “Erin threw out this idea of partnering and navigating this uncharted territory together,” said Scott. “All of the folks that are part of this collaborative are impactful in their own right. They’ve made a name for themselves in the nonprofit world. We care about our kids. We care about the community and we believed that if we did something together people would understand it and fund it.”

Tonia Gilbert and Steve Scraggs, who had worked together in the public school system before switching careers to work in the nonprofit sector, also answered the call. Banding together made sense to Gilbert. “We knew funders were going to be inundated with funding requests from organizations wanting to do something for the community.”  

“The question we were asking as the YMCA was, ‘How we could help the community get back on its feet?,’” said Scraggs. “We wanted to support first responders and healthcare providers who needed to continue to work. We also talked about the grocery store workers, truck drivers, and folks who were working on the front lines to keep the economy going.”

Taking the initiative to join forces meant putting aside the notion that nonprofits need to compete for funding. The traditional approach to nonprofits is to kind of play things close to your chest, because there’s maybe a concern out there that if you begin to partner, if you begin to share, you lose precious funding that everybody’s fighting for. I get that, I understand that, but I’m just not built that way,” said Scott.

Creating learning sites

The hastily formed collaborative took shape with a plan to establish learning sites that would provide free child care and distance learning support in the community recreation centers, clubs, and churches managed by the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, Camp Fire Heartland, and Upper Room. Turn the Page KC took the lead to calculate the cost of the program and raise money to pay for it.

“I knew Mike was the perfect person to be the backbone of the Out-of-School-Time Collaborative,” Balleine said. “When I asked him, he emphatically said yes. He was the one who sorted through the funding options. He wrote all the reports for us. He’s really been essential in making sure this collaborative could operate while the rest of the organizations were able to focus on direct service and program delivery.”

A crazy amount of money

“The traditional approach to nonprofits is to play things close to your chest, because there’s maybe a concern out there that if you begin to partner, if you begin to share, you lose that precious funding that everybody’s fighting for. And I get that, I understand that, but I’m just not built that way.”
Dred Scott, President and CEO, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City

The funding the collaborative would need to operate was staggering. “We needed a crazy amount of money and we needed it fast,” English said.  

“At one of our initial Thursday morning Zoom meetings we were having conversations about resource allocations,” Scraggs recalled. “We did the math to determine what it would take to make things go.”

“We estimated we would have to raise over $100,000 a week, so there was a huge sticker shock, and we didn’t know when the need was going to end,” English said.

When I saw the total I thought to myself, ‘Oh, this is going to be hard,’” Scraggs said. “But when I saw that my colleagues weren’t fazed by that number, it gave me confidence that we had the right people in the room to make this happen.”

Safe places

Securing funding would be an uphill battle, and tending to the details of providing safe places for children to gather during a global health crisis presented a new set of challenges. “We’ve got to make sure kids have a safe place. We’ve got to make sure kids have food. We’ve got to make sure that there’s transportation,” Balleine said. “We were trying to think through little things, like how do we get kids checked in? Do we meet parents at the door? How do we keep parents six-feet apart? How do we keep masks on kids? Do we have enough masks? Do we have enough hand sanitizer? Oh, they can’t drink out of the water fountain, do we have enough water bottles? But then beyond that, nobody had done virtual school before. So, then we had to think through, okay, do they have their devices? Are they charged up? Do we have enough extension cords for everyone? Do we know kids’ usernames and logins? What apps are they using? How are we going to figure out their homework assignments?”

Prior to opening, centers were closed for rounds of deep cleaning and the leaders of the collaborative learned to make due. Balleine cut Clorox wipes in half hoping the precious antiseptic wipes would last longer. Gilbert was forced to pay six times the normal price for digital thermometers as the price of in-demand personal protective equipment soared.

“We learned it on the fly. It was great to be able to provide that service, but also it was a little bit taxing at moments because we just didn’t have a lot of direction. It’s outside of my nature, but as a leader, you had to rise up and do,” said Gilbert.

“There were just constant tweaks as we figured out what was working and what wasn’t working. We just had to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to make this work,’” Balleine added.

Ready or not

Like all good stories, this one came with a moment of truth. With students already enrolled in their programs and hundreds of families depending on the facilities being open in a few weeks, the collaborative had no money. Summer was fading into fall and hope was fading into reality. “We didn’t have any money in the bank and we’re about a week away from school starting,” Balleine recalled. “And I remember somebody said, ‘Are we really doing this?’”

“It’s knowing that I am part of a solution, a greater good, for this community – it makes you proud to be able to say, ‘I was a part of that.'”
Tonia Gilbert, Executive Director, Upper Room

It was a gut check time for Dred, Erin, Steve, Tonia, and Mike on their weekly Zoom call. Despite the lack of funding, one by one the members of the fledgling Out-of-School-Time Collaborative pledged to open 16 learning sites at no change for 860 families in need.

“We could have taken two approaches,” said Scott. “We could have battened down the hatches, closed all the shutters, buttoned up, took a peek out, and re-emerged once we felt like it was safe to do so. The route we chose was to get out there in the storm and courageously confront this issue.”

“It was very interesting as the leader of a nonprofit to go to your board and say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing this program, and I don’t know if we’re going to have any money to pay for it,’” Gilbert said. “But I will tell you, our board wholeheartedly said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ We didn’t want to turn anyone away, and we didn’t want to end prematurely and send kids home.”

“It was pretty nerve-racking,” English recalled. “Once you make that decision to open up, people start counting on you. If you don’t come through, it’s going to be awful. We had enough positive signals from the community we felt cautiously optimistic. But it was still a gamble.”

On Sept. 8, 2020, distance learning officially began for students enrolled in many Kansas City area schools, including the Kansas City Public School District, Center School District, Hickman Mills School District, and most charter schools. As students arrived for their first day at learning sites established by the Out-of-School-Time Collaborative, other organizations stepped up to provide needed advice, supplies, and facilities for the effort, including the Missouri After School Network, the United Way of Greater Kansas City, and School Smart Kansas City. The Local Investment Commission (LINC) played a key role to help identify the families and children most in need of in-person learning sites. The Kansas City Public Library kept the learning sites stocked with fresh supplies of books. The Health Department contributed masks for children, and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce donated art supplies and crafts. Kansas City Public Schools helped with transportation and meals, and the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department opened community centers for use as learning sites and staff to help with registration.


With one collective deep breath, the collaborative partners prepared to welcome young people. “It was probably the scariest time,” Gilbert recalled. “We didn’t know what to expect with the pandemic. This was a program we’d never operated before and there was no manual to follow. I remember trying to calm our staff and ease their fears as September approached. We went into it thinking that it would only be a couple of months before things would start to return to some sense of normal and kids would be back in school. By mid-January we stopped saying how long we thought it was going to be.”

“The philanthropic community in Kansas City became increasingly aware of what we were trying to do, and really liked – my sense, was – liked the uniqueness of bringing these different entities together to solve a common problem for the community.”
Steve Scraggs, Senior Vice President Youth Development Services, YMCA of Greater Kansas City

The coronavirus took a disproportionate toll on the health of people of color and cast a harsh spotlight on persistent racial and social inequalities. “There are economic realities and digital equity issues that need to be addressed,” Scraggs said. “Not everyone could afford to stay home, and not everyone had the opportunity to work from home to attend school online.”

All of the students supported by grants to the collaborative were from families who qualified for free-and-reduced-price lunch eligibility or met HUD guidelines for economic support. “Those parents have the same concern for their kids, their safety, and their learning as some of their more affluent counterparts. We knew that we had to be open to support those parents so that they could continue to support their families and their livelihoods,” said Scott.

Safety protocols and schoolwork

At each learning site, the day was structured around safety protocols and schoolwork. Students attended class online using laptops and tablets. When they weren’t using screens, they did worksheets, read, and completed homework. The nonprofits added staff, including certified teachers, to keep the student-to-adult ratio right and offer individual tutoring. The goal was to keep young people engaged and learning at grade level. The daily routine included a healthy lunch, snacks, and breaks for exercise, games, and small group activities. Along the way the nonprofits also provided young people with the social and emotional support they needed to help them through difficult days. The average daily attendance at the learning sites was 84%, and the sites operated without a debilitating outbreak of the virus.

Complicated and expensive

With the partner organizations running learning sites, English was the point person to find funding. He applied to the KC Regional COVID-19 Relief Fund and made calls to raise money, measuring his approach and strategy along the way. “The problem was everything was so unpredictable. We were very forthcoming with funders about the uncertainty we faced. We let them know this effort would be complicated and expensive.” 

English had his doubts he could raise enough money to keep the learning sites open. “I didn’t think it was going to work. We were turning over every cushion in the city to raise funding. We felt a real calling to try our hardest and to cash in any political or capital we had. That’s what I did and a lot of my colleagues and board members did. We pushed in all of our chips.”

The collaborative received its first significant grant on the Friday before the learning sites were due to open. Soon money began to flow to the cash-starved enterprise. “The philanthropic community of Kansas City became increasingly aware of what we were trying to do, and my sense was, liked the uniqueness of bringing these different entities together to solve a common problem,” Scraggs said. “The community rallied to support what we were doing.”

With the learning sites up and running, the collaborative began receiving grants from a wide range of community funders. At the Kauffman Foundation, which had supported the members of the collaborative individually through the years, the impromptu alliance fit its Kansas City Civic strategy to invest in programs that support learning and collaboration, and open the door to inclusive prosperity. Funders also streamlined their normal processes and practices to pump money into the collaborative quickly. “There wasn’t time for the usual paperwork,” Balleine said. “There wasn’t time to put together a logic model. And to be really honest, we didn’t even know what kind of impact we were going to make. We knew kids were going to have a safe place. We knew they were going to be able to eat. We knew they were going to be able to log into school. We knew the basic necessities would be met. We had no idea what kind of impact and outcomes were going to come out of this.”

“One of the takeaways is that some of the programs that are most essential may not have the perfect planning or the perfect evaluation instruments,” English said. “Some of the nonprofits that are the most critical, maybe more grassroots, don’t have staff to work on development plans. And so being more comfortable taking a bit of risk with your grantmaking is important because nonprofits take big risks every day and solving huge community needs takes a lot of risk.”

On May 28, parents picked up their children at learning sites for the last time. It was a cool Friday night in Kansas City. The tumultuous school year had come to an end and members of the Out-of-School-Time Collaborative made plans to meet in person for the first time.

What do you really believe?

“It really was a test of fortitude,” Scott said. “What do you really believe? What’s important?  If you’re not careful, you can easily overlook or undervalue nonprofits and the impact they have in the community. I would argue that the folks that are working in nonprofits may be a little more in tune with what’s important in the world. We claimed a huge leadership role in this community and put a stake in the ground to say we’re going to be here.”

“What they’ve done is really heroic,” said English of his collaborative partners. “That’s why we’re all in the nonprofit sector, to try to make the world a better place, or in times like these, to make the world less bad. That’s our mission. So, it felt good to go all in on a critical program during such a chaotic time.”

“We decided we were going to believe in each other. We’re going to trust one another and trust this process. That, as long as we’re doing the right thing for children and families, everything else will be fine,” said Gilbert. “I think it was our finest hour.”

Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City
Camp Fire Heartland
Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City
YMCA of Greater Kansas City
Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City
Camp Fire Heartland
YMCA of Greater Kansas City
Upper Room
Upper Room
Dred Scott, Steve Scraggs, Erin Balleine, Tonia Gilbert, and Mike English, founders of the Out-of-School-Time Collaborative