At Growing Futures, demand for services for low-income families persists in Johnson County

Kids at play on the Growing Futures playground near downtown Overland Park.
Kids at play on the Growing Futures playground near downtown Overland Park.

Terrie VanZandt-Travis will never forget the moment her mission in life became clear.

She’d only been on the job as a teacher with Head Start of Shawnee Mission for three weeks when she sat down with her group of pre-schoolers for lunch that day. The class served meals family style as a way to foster interaction among the kids and teach table manners. But for one 4 year old, the sight of a dish of food being passed from classmate to classmate caused a full blown panic attack. With every student who served him or herself, the amount of food in the dish got smaller and smaller. The boy was convinced that by the time the plate got to him, there would be nothing left.

“If you take it, I don’t get any,” the boy said.

VanZandt-Travis worked hard to convince the boy that he would get served just like the other kids, that no matter where he sat at the table, there would always be food for him. Two days later, though, it became clear just how deeply embedded the boy’s fear of hunger was.

When lunch was wrapping up that day, VanZandt-Travis looked over and noticed the boy had the entire upper half of his body inside the classroom trash bin. She approached and found him grabbing uneaten canned peaches from the trash and shoving them in his pockets. He was going to take them home so he and his brothers would have something to eat that night.

“That was my moment,” VanZandt-Travis says. “That was the moment I realized that this was the issue I had to focus on.”

It wasn’t as though she was unfamiliar with poverty in general. VanZandt-Travis’s family started out in poverty, but was able to move out of it and into the middle class.

“My dad was able to get a job. And we never didn’t have food,” she said. “But that was this child’s reality. And he’s just one child. There are many more in that same position.”

Today, VanZandt-Travis is the executive director of what’s now known as the Growing Futures Early Education Center. The organization changed its name from Head Start of Shawnee Mission in 2015 as a way to clarify the fact that it is independent of the Shawnee Mission School District, and also to avoid some of the negative connotations some client families can have with the “Head Start” name and its association with federal poverty programs.

The organization has been serving families living in and near poverty in Johnson County since 1965, providing affordable, quality child care and early education programs. And as it enters its second 50 years of operation, Growing Futures is seeing the need for its services grow.

Growing Future, which runs out of the former Overland Park Elementary building at 8155 Santa Fe, currently serves approximately 250 low-income children and their families, but has a waiting list 200 people long. (In the years directly after the onset of the financial crisis, that waiting list ballooned to more than 400). And that waiting list doesn’t capture how widespread the issue is. There are more than 3,750 kids ages birth to 5  in Johnson County who are living at 100 percent of the federal poverty level or below, according to United Community Services. That reality doesn’t square up for many people living in the more affluent parts of Johnson County, where poverty is largely invisible.

“We have people in this community who want to put blinders up and not believe that it’s here,” VanZandt-Travis said. “I had a parent tell me once, ‘You know, I’ve lived all over the metro, and this is the hardest place to live in when you’re poor.’ There’s a lot of energy that’s put into hiding the fact that you’re poor for families who live here.”

For the past decade, Growing Futures has been offering one-hour tours of the operation several times a year to give Johnson County residents the chance to see how it helps kids and their families in person. The next tour date is Sept. 12. You can also request a tour for your group or organization by contacting Growing Futures here.