Urban Ranger Corps refurbishes lives, neighborhood
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - Father John Wandless stood looking out his office's picture window over Swope Parkway in pensive silence for a moment, then began talking about his two-year-old ministry, the Urban Ranger Corps.
Marty Denzer/Key photo
Father Wandless reviews a checklist with workers at a house they are refurbishing. Urban Ranger Jeremiah is painting the side of the house.
"I would walk around this neighborhood when I was pastor of St. Louis Parish, and just walking around, I could see that many parts of it were on the verge of deteriorating. We've had fights and gun battles around here. Just across the street at a filling station, there was a gun battle the other night. We found more than 20 spent shell casings lying around.
"I wanted to do something to try and stop that deterioration, and help both the homeowners and the kids who live around here," he said.
Father Wandless, 70, grew up in poverty in Pittsburgh, served in the U.S. Navy and worked for the Federal War on Poverty program established by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. At the time, U.S. Census statistics showed that more than 35 million Americans lived in poverty, or about 25 percent of the population.
In the 1980s John Wandless, by then married with a son and a daughter, formed a successful high tech computer software firm that focused on health care services.
Nearly four decades after working to fight poverty, Father Wandless, who was widowed in 1991 and ordained a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 1997, was assigned as pastor of St. Louis Parish. The urge to help the neighborhood families, especially the youth, flamed high again.
In 2003 he read a novel by Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale University Law School, titled "The Emperor of Ocean Park." One line in the story kept coming back to him: "There are plenty of black kids who look out at the world and see a place that has no room for them."
That sentence struck a chord within him, Father Wandless said, and seemed to describe his neighborhood. Citing local statistics compiled in 2000 and quoted in a Catholic Key story (Oct. 8, 2001), he said that in the one square mile around St. Louis Church were found the highest concentration of welfare recipients and the largest group of school age children in Jackson County. The area ranked in the top 5 percent in crime in Kansas City. Much of the area's decline was related to the census indication that close to 50 percent of the homes in the neighborhood were rental properties, many of them Section 8 Public Housing with absentee landlords, he said.
Another contributing factor to the deterioration was the lack of solidarity between the older and younger residents, Father Wandless said.
Grafting his experiences in the military and as a businessman onto his love of God and concern for people in need, he established the not-for-profit Wandless Institute for Community Development and hired the first crew of the Urban Rangers Corps in 2004.
The Urban Rangers take their name from several sources, Father Wandless said. The young men, ages 14-18, all live in Kansas City's urban core and, like forest rangers, they care for the environment around them, the yards and homes of their neighbors.
The program has had about 50 young men go through it since its establishment, with 25 attending each summer. Ten adults serve as crew leaders.
The teens must attend a week-long orientation, consisting of calisthenics, hiking and training in the use of hand tools. Upon graduation, they receive $50. In order to participate in the eight-week Urban Rangers program, they must finish the orientation.
The Urban Rangers work Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then returns to headquarters to write a letter about what happened on the job each day. The first letter each summer has been sent to their homes. Father Wandless said since letter writing is a communications and job skill, it is important that the teenagers know how to write a letter.
The workday closes with 15 minutes of spiritual reflection.
The work crews focus on one run-down house at a time, Father Wandless said. They shore up sagging porches or tear them down and rebuild them as patios or decks; build fences, paint, clean up overgrown yards, cut down trees and patch holes in exterior walls.
Father Wandless said with a rueful grin, "We've discovered that the most common plant growing in this neighborhood is poison ivy. Looks real pretty until you touch it. We've hauled away at least two truck loads of the stuff."
"We've also identified the most common lawn ornament as stacks of old tires," he said.
Most of the work is done during the summer months, but an older crew is working this winter on a house a couple of blocks west of St. Louis Church.
Urban Rangers Corps has chosen the square block of 60th street between College and Indiana streets as a "model block." The ranger crews have already completed refurbishing two houses on the block and, Father Wandless said, they hope to acquire rundown houses, fix them up and resell them to low income families at affordable mortgage rates.
The Urban Rangers program offers Workman's Compensation insurance and provides lunch for the work crews. The work load and scheduling have to follow child labor laws, since the teens begin when they are 14 years old.
Father Wandless uses his savings to fund the program's materials, tools and the stipend paid to the teenagers for now. He said that eventually the program will have to raise funds from the outside, but he wants to be able to show its successes to potential donors.
"These kids are the future of our community," Father Wandless said. "Who knows what they will be or will have done by they time they are my age? Their first job isn't necessarily what they will do in life, but it gives them a start."
The teens have to get to headquarters, which is next door to Swope Ridge Senior Housing, on their own. They have to be on time and dressed in appropriate clothing. The program provides uniforms: T-shirts with a patch bearing the Urban Ranger Corps logo and jackets with the patch on the back. The logo, designed by Father Wandless with the aid of a local graphic artist, contains a house, a tree and a blue background, all of which represents the Urban Ranger environment.
"The uniform not only saves on clothing expenses but provides older folks in the neighborhood with a sense of security," said Father Wandless. "These kids are not wandering gangs, they are with supervising adults learning a skill and helping their community look and thus feel better."
He may be retired from day-to-day parish duties, but Father Wandless is still active, both as a replacement for parish priests who will be absent for weekend Masses, and in the Urban Ranger Corps. Recently Neal Colby, formerly executive director of Catholic Charities and retired director of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocesan Office of Social Concerns, became executive director of the Urban Ranger Corps.
Father Wandless has a few ideas for his Urban Ranger Corps, possibly including leadership programs and rehab projects in Colorado or New Mexico. But that's in the future.
Right now, the crew working down the street has accidentally set off the burglar alarm in the house and he has phone calls make to get it shut off before alarm company get's alarmed. Just another day in the life of the Urban Ranger Corps.