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Banking on KC – Jennifer Mendez

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Jennifer Mendez, the Cultural Arts Director at the Mattie Rhodes Center, a community development organization that's dedicated to individual and family wellbeing through social services, behavioral health counseling, and the arts. Welcome to the show, Jenny.

Jennifer Mendez:

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

First of all, I want to congratulate you on celebrating the 125th anniversary of Mattie Rhodes this year. What an accomplishment.

Jennifer Mendez:

Yes. It's such a great organization and such a great accomplishment for all the work that we continue to do at our best.

Kelly Scanlon:

Where did the name of the organization come from? Mattie Rhodes Center. That was a person?

Jennifer Mendez:

Yes. And when you said it, it makes me smile because it really does have a wonderful story to it. So, Mattie Rhodes was a young girl in the late 1800s who lived here in Kansas City. Her family would have had some wealth attached to it, and we only know that because she was a part of a Sunday school group called The Little Gleaners. Her purpose with The Little Gleaners was to really just provide for the poor and needy of the community, which is exactly what we really continue to do today. The wording may not be the same, but the meaning is. So, her mission was to really do that with her group of young girls. And unfortunately, at a very young age, at the age of 19, she then became very ill and got typhoid fever. And in getting sick on her death bed, she had $500 saved up, which is a lot of money for the late 1800s for a young person.

Jennifer Mendez:

And she asked her mother if the money could go back to her Sunday school group and be able to continue to help the poor and needy of Kansas City. So, with that $500 they started one of the first free kindergarten daycare centers in Kansas City and then, that turned into the Mattie Rhodes Memorial Society. For over 100 years, we have continued to really keep her legacy alive and in the work that she did at the very beginning stages of young Mattie Rhodes to now. And like I said before, really continuing their mission to be a resource, to be a guiding place for our families and young people and people that need assistance. And so, with all the work that we do, whether it's in the cultural arts, whether it's in youth development, whether it's in our family services or in our community programmings, we really are continuing the work that Mattie Rhodes started.

Kelly Scanlon:

What an enduring legacy. Now, I mentioned that Mattie Rhodes is a community development organization. Tell us about the four areas that fall within Mattie Rhode's mission, and also how far your reach extends.

Jennifer Mendez:

The four areas are of course, well, community development being one, youth development, then there's family services, which covers our mental health, and then there's the cultural arts. All four of those areas really give a full menu of really wonderful resources for our families in the greater Kansas City area. And when we say greater Kansas City area, our reach is really throughout the city of Kansas City, but beyond that, so when we're talking about even crossing the state lines into Kansas City, Kansas, even within our cultural arts, we reach way further than that. We go Johnson County to outside of even the greater Kansas City area in the Missouri side, when we offer different opportunities for school groups to come, some of them will come as far away as an hour and a half to two hours, just to be a part of our arts education programming that we offer.

Jennifer Mendez:

So, we really have a wide span of services, but the majority of our clientele, our participants, are on the west side of Kansas City. And then, also on the northeast side of Kansas City, Missouri. And that's really our main focus, but like I said, our reach is way beyond that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Quite a wide footprint there. So, within that broader mission of community development and those four sectors that you named, what is your role as the Cultural Arts Director and how are the arts being used to give voice to the people that you work with and to develop wellness?

Jennifer Mendez:

That's a great question. My role as Cultural Arts Director is really making sure that I have the pulse on the community at large, as far as the arts are concerned. Being able to work with many different organizations, but also just being able to work with schools, especially the elementary school that happens to be right across the street from our arts center and gallery, and it's Primitivo Garcia, which is part of the Kansas City, Missouri school district. And so, we have a long lasting relationship that we've had for many years and really just supporting the children that are in our neighborhood because it is a neighborhood school. And then, we also provide summer art camps and other camps throughout the year that really hones in on a wider range, like we were talking about before, just the reach of many roads, to a lot of kids that are outside of this main neighborhood that really want to be a part of something that shows cultural diversity. That's able to really reach an appreciation of different cultures through the arts and being able to really offer a quality program.

Jennifer Mendez:

So, we have lots and lots of families that rely on us to be able to provide that and then come back year after year. So, we have a lot generational families that either came as a child here to our art center and then want those same experiences for their own children. So, we really pride ourselves in being able to do that type of work and continue to offer those types of programs.

Kelly Scanlon:

Give us an example of some of these programs that you're talking about.

Jennifer Mendez:

The arts really helps to draw in so many people. We've referenced it a lot, that we are the window to the agency. A lot of people come in through the arts that then find out about the rest of what we do at Mattie Rhodes, and sometimes they have no idea that we have a domestic violence program. They have no idea that we have a community garden. They have no idea that we're able to provide substance abuse counseling to families or to individuals. So, it's really an interesting way of looking at it, but very important. The arts really opens a lot of people's eyes to different experiences. You don't have to be an artist to appreciate art.

Jennifer Mendez:

And then, as far as examples to the programming that we provide, we do have an afterschool art program that's been the longest running program in our agency. So, going on almost 50 years now, the arts center started with the afterschool program and being able to provide quality arts programming in a safe environment for children in the neighborhood that are either less fortunate or at risk, and being able to have a place for them, an outlet for them that they can come to.

Jennifer Mendez:

And they ... Even saying before, they don't have to be artists to be able to come here, but it is something that they can come and feel good about when they leave there, they can connect to the people that are here. They have a sense of ownership to our space. So, it's a really, really important part of the work that we do along with providing summer art camps, that just like a soccer camp or a music camp, this is something that's a little bit different and that can lend that creative aspect of what children need in their lives. And the parents that are able to see that are able to say, "Let's try something different." Or just the idea that they can be able to experience new tools, experience new art mediums, to just having different sets of teachers and lessons.

Jennifer Mendez:

So, those are two of our really big programs, but other stuff that we do, and I think really show our expertise is in our gallery. We have a gallery that we have done exhibits for the past 22 years, and it is a Latinx or Hispanic focused gallery that started out as just really being able to give a venue to local artists that needed a place to exhibit their work. A lot of upcoming artists, a lot of very young artists, but just artists in general, that didn't fall into that mainstream of art galleries. And they were able to show their work here and really gave a lot of them a boost for their next step of what they could possibly be doing in the arts world here in Kansas City, that of course in the past 10 years has just boomed. So, that's another part of it.

Jennifer Mendez:

And then, providing the education opportunities that go along with the exhibits that we do have here, and those are the field trips that we're able to bring in lots of students from all over the greater Kansas City area and beyond to really experience the culture, experience different artwork, experience different artists.

Kelly Scanlon:

So, do you have partnerships with other area arts organizations say like ArtsKC or the Nelson Kemper?

Jennifer Mendez:

Yes. For sure. We definitely are very supportive and do programming or different opportunities that come throughout the year with ArtsKC. We've been receiving funding from them since the beginning of their inception. So, that's really nice, that they're a very supportive organization of what we do and the programming that we provide. The Nelson-Atkins museum, this would have been our 10th year ... Well, we've worked with them this year, but it was just a little different, but 10 years of providing Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead celebration to the Nelson.

Jennifer Mendez:

So, we are the experts and they see us as that, and they really respect us in that manner, that having us as a true partner in bringing Day of the Dead, the cultural celebration of remembering our loved ones, that derives from Mexico, to Kansas City and through the Nelson it really is a different lens that is so much wider than the lens that we can provide here. They have such a different audience. And then, we also work with the Kansas City Museum and we've worked with them in many different ways, but the main way would be the seven years that we've helped them with their Day of the Dead celebration in the historical northeast neighborhood of Kansas City.

Kelly Scanlon:

What about the Day of the Dead, being able to work with these other organizations obviously extends your reach, creates more awareness and educates as well. How did COVID impact that this year?

Jennifer Mendez:

We've done a few different things. So we worked first, we worked with the Nelson to be able to be a part of their virtual exhibits and virtual education programming, but they did shut down all their programming, even though they just more recently opened up the museum back up. But we were able to do some video and be a part of this really cool virtual program that they have available for people to check out on their website. And then, the Kansas City Museum, they, instead of doing a festival type of an event, it was a more of an RSVP event. So, it definitely was a change. It didn't have a lot of audience the way that the Nelson or even the museum does have, but still being able to provide something. And within our own space, in our gallery, we were able to provide a place for a very small number of altars of families and community here local that actually had a loss of someone during this time of a pandemic.

Jennifer Mendez:

And so, there's five altars in our space compared to 20 that we would normally have, but it was really important to, especially now in this time of the pandemic, to be able to provide this source for people to be able to grieve in a way and to celebrate in a way that we would normally be doing. So, it was very hard and difficult, definitely a challenge for us to figure out how we were going to keep going and do something, because we knew that this was important for us to stay on top of and make sure that we were seen and viewed by people. So, we're doing a lot of virtual programming.

Kelly Scanlon:

When you talk about the Day of the Dead being ... The way you described that, it's a healing opportunity for so many people. And as you say, especially during these times when so many have lost their loved ones. And so, I just wonder does the cultural arts center, the arts programs, do they overlap into some of the other areas that you mentioned earlier, the substance abuse, the domestic abuse, and some of those areas, as part of the healing process or the therapeutic process?

Jennifer Mendez:

Yes. I'm glad that you mentioned that because we do have a grant that we've gotten through the Jackson County Mental Health Levy. The main focus was to provide a more awareness of mental health and educating people through the arts on how mental health can play a part of everyday life, or just being able to show them that it's something that is more accepting and give a different light on it. So, through this grant we've been able to hold some workshops before the pandemic, of course, and were really successful.

Jennifer Mendez:

And as far as Day of the Dead goes, we have a conversation that we are planning. It will be more of a post Day of the Dead conversation with our families that put up the altars and really talk to them about what type of process ... We know what they felt when they were creating the altar, but now that they've been up for some weeks and now the taking down of the altars, we want to talk to them about grief and about loss and how we can be supportive of them through our mental health services and being able to have a conversation with them.

Jennifer Mendez:

And it'll be virtual, and it'll be available for other people to be a part of, so that hopefully we can give light to what that is or to people that are suffering with grief and loss, and really connect it to what we're doing in the arts and the importance of exhibits like Day of the Dead and other art opportunities that we have available here. In March, we do a women's history month exhibit every year called Mujer, which really celebrates the women and the women artist. And we want to have a conversation at that time about the strength of women.

Jennifer Mendez:

And it's a lot of the work that we try do is, it's really family oriented. Even though we may speak to a family that is putting up an altar or an artist that paints something that talks about their life growing up and their family, that's a part of it and all that. It's really great when we can then invite their children to come to an art camp or their children to be a part of our afterschool program. Or when we see our families that put together an altar for their loved one, especially this year, when it became such a family ... And always really is, but it becomes such a family thing. That they're all have a part of it. They all are participating in some way.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right. A very holistic approach. Yeah.

Jennifer Mendez:

Yeah, very much so. And that's exactly how we ... When we work with our other parts of our agency, we want to really provide more of a holistic service to our participants.

Kelly Scanlon:

Jenny, I'm really curious, one of the programs in particular that Mattie Rhodes Center offers is the Local Foods, Local Places program. Tell us about that.

Jennifer Mendez:

Well, it's definitely a new program and we're really excited about it. When the pandemic hit, Mattie Rhodes always does, is really goes to where the needs are. And one of the needs that we really saw, just like so many other agencies saw, was a need for food and getting in support and resources for families. So, really we just went for some monies in order to help to support that program. We were able to do ... At first, really just being able to provide for our participants and get food donated through some particular funders and donors. And we were able to get a ton of food, and in a quick amount of time, get it out to as many participants as we could. And that was really neat to see all that happen. And so, then as the months went on and the need was still there, then it turned into a much larger program with more intention than ever before.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are your goals for Mattie Rhodes Center in the next three to five years, as you look down that runway, where would you like to see yourself?

Jennifer Mendez:

We had a capital campaign that we started some years ago to build a new cultural arts center for Kansas City, and I say for Kansas City, because it's not for me, it's not for my staff, it's not even for the artwork that would go into the space. It's really for Kansas City, for the people, for the neighborhood, for our community, for our students, for our families, for Mattie Rhodes as a whole, for the legacy of Mattie Rhodes herself. So, this cultural arts center is going to start construction within the next few months, up until the beginning of the year, for sure. And hopefully by late next year, around this time, or into the following early part of the following year, we would hope to be in that building. So, by five years from now, we'll be settled in a brand new cultural arts center.

Jennifer Mendez:

We'll still be doing programming out of our arts center. I've have 24 years this month with Mattie Rhodes and I'd love to see another five years here. And so, I know that that question is a big one in so many ways because of this new adventure that we're about to take with having a new building, the first building that Mattie Rhodes can say that they created from scratch and all of the challenges that came along the way. So, this is a big accomplishment for us and I just want to be a part of that and continue to be a part of it. I've been a big part of it from the get go and wanted to be able to be here when it actually is here. And we can hold new exhibits there, larger exhibits, be able to have people into our space, just continue the quality arts programming that we've always offered.

Jennifer Mendez:

And as far as the agency is concerned, I think the route that we're going in something like a pandemic that has helped us to shift into looking at things differently in the way we offer programming and the way we serve our community, has really been such a lesson learned. And so, we want to continue to stay on that focus and really just be there for our families and our children, and just our community at large.

Kelly Scanlon:

With the new building, with the new cultural arts center, with the new ways that you have learned to communicate and to outreach into the community, so many more people that you will be able to serve. Thank you so much for the work that you are doing on behalf of these neighborhoods in Kansas City. We really appreciate it, and congratulations once again, on the 125 year anniversary.

Jennifer Mendez:

You're welcome. We're really excited about it. Thank you so much for having us.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Jennifer Mendez for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. The Mattie Rhodes Center has worked for 125 years to enrich the lives of children and families in the Kansas City communities it serves. Its cultural arts programs in particular strive to enrich the lives of participants through creative activity. These programs also foster multicultural awareness throughout the larger Kansas City community. Country Club Bank recognizes that a vibrant sustainable community must provide opportunity for its young people. We applaud Mattie Rhodes' persistent efforts to help the youth in our area discover, develop, and achieve their best potential as they grow to become our future adults, citizens and leaders. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, Member FDIC.