Good Shepherd home continues to bounce back
By Lori Wood Habiger
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY - The Community of the Good Shepherd is experiencing a renaissance. After nearly being destroyed by a well-publicized scandal in the mid-1990s, the not-for-profit agency, which serves developmentally disabled men, has made a strong comeback.
Lori Wood Habiger/Key photo
Kandice Walker, left, is development coordinator, and Sharon Higney is administrator of the Community of the Good Shepherd, an independent group home for the developmentally disabled men.
Less than five years ago, the agency was in such dire straights that simply keeping its doors open was a day-to-day struggle. Now, after a lot of hard work by staff and volunteers, and renewed trust on the part of funders, the agency has come so far that it's been nominated for a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Best Practices award in the category of "Restoring Public Trust," and "Empowering People and Communities."
Every year HUD recognizes what it considers to be the top 100 HUD-funded programs in the country in efficiency and community service. HUD provides funding to the Community of the Good Shepherd for four of its five group homes, all located at 10101 James A. Reed Road. Award winners will be announced at a HUD symposium in late July.
Community of the Good Shepherd administrators believe the Best Practices nomination is a testament to the agency's dramatic turnaround. Such recognition would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. In 1997, the agency's former executive director admitted in federal court to embezzling more than $250,000 in agency funds for his own use. Executive director from 1987 to 1994, Douglas K. Fidler, a former Catholic brother who called himself Brother Francis de Sales, is now serving a three-year prison sentence.
Although the agency has no formal ties to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, for many years an order of religious called the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd ran the charity under the name Good Shepherd Manor. In 1991 the agency was renamed the Community of the Good Shepherd and moved to a new, more home-like campus in south Kansas City.
Today, the agency's group homes, certified by the Missouri Department of Mental Health, serve 34 men.
As a result of the Fidler scandal, individual donors and foundations lost trust in the agency, and many stopped contributing to the Community of the Good Shepherd, which, like most human service charities, depends heavily on public contributions to help pay for program costs. In addition, some of the clients' families removed them from care.
Sharon Higney, Community of the Good Shepherd administrator, said when she came to the agency over a year after Fidler left, staff and families were suspicious, mistrustful, and felt betrayed. To begin to mend fences, Higney told them, "All we can do is go forward and make it better." She instituted new policies and procedures, including forbidding overtime in an attempt to cut costs, and putting stricter controls on financial management. Higney also attributes some of the reversal to dedicated employees and volunteers, including a group of women called The Guild who "were initially hurt and angry" by the scandal "but didn't go away."
The turnaround is a relief to agency staff who were afraid the scandal would negatively affect their clients - affectionately called "the guys" - who have developmental disabilities caused by conditions like Down syndrome and autism.
"Brother Francis was the one that caused the scandal," said Kandice Walker, development coordinator. "But 'the guys' were always innocent. When people started pulling away, and stopped donating to us, the guys were the ones who suffered. Their not donating to us certainly didn't hurt Brother Francis."
At the worst of the resulting financial crisis, Walker and Higney were the agency's only two administrative personnel. Even then, they also frequently provided direct care to the clients, cooking them dinner and helping them with showers.
The Community of the Good Shepherd is well on its way to restoring public trust. Last year they launched a $45,000 capital campaign to make small improvements to the campus. Instead they raised $170,000, enabling them to make more extensive improvements, such as new carpet and vinyl flooring in the group homes, along with new stoves and kitchen countertops.
"When you are truly dedicated to a cause," Higney said, "if you hold true to what you believe in and work hard, you can overcome any difficulty. It doesn't hurt to add in a little bit of love, and a little bit of faith."
Walker said the clients were worth the struggle. "They aren't 'charity cases.' They are individuals just like you and me who need more than just food and drink and showers," she said. "They need so much more to lead a full life. They need to feel like they are a part of a larger community, and feel that that community cares about them, too."