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Banking on KC – Brent Lager of Uncover KC

Banking on KC – Brent Lager of Uncover KC

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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 Brent Lager, the Co-Founder and President of Uncover KC. Welcome Brent.

Brent Lager:

Hi, thanks for having me Kelly.

Kelly Scanlon:

Brett, Uncover KC is a 501(c)(3) organization and volunteerism is at its core. Take us deeper into that. What do you do at Uncover KC?

Brent Lager:

Yes. So it really falls back to three simple terms connect, we connect people and organizations here in Kansas City, or organizations to people. We then act, we drive them to action. So whether that's motivating or communicating or helping people to do that, or simply just reminding them, and then we make impact through that. It's literally connect, act and impact is what we do. It's the essence of everything.

Brent Lager:

What we've learned is people like to make social impact in a lot of different ways. So it can't just be volunteerism like my original idea was, it's beyond that. Service comes in many different ways, but you always need the connection and you always need something just to make sure you're acting in that way.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us about where you came up with the idea. What inspired you to start Uncover KC?

Brent Lager:

Yeah, it was, wow, eight years ago and I was a sports reporter at the time. I grew up here in KC, Parkville area, went to Mizzou, got my journalism degree there, came back, was going to be the next great sports writer and jumped around a lot of small papers. I could never leave Kansas City though. I kept gaining some offers in different cities and I just ... I love the town and especially, I fell in love with it again when I came back from college and I lived downtown and really saw the undercurrent of the city and all the different, like the art, the music, the service scene and all these different ways.

Brent Lager:

So when I was still sports reporter and an editor, I was just missing something. My heart had a hole in it and I couldn't fill it. I had money, I had friends, I had my own place, I just-

Kelly Scanlon:

Life was good.

Brent Lager:

It was good, but I was lacking meaning. I just was missing that purpose in life. So my faith led me to volunteer and I wanted to put actions or words that I've been reading about love into action. So I went looking to volunteer and I have volunteered a lot in my life before 2013, but it was all at some of the bigger organizations. So I went looking for small, medium-sized nonprofits in Kansas City, and I found it really hard to find.

Kelly Scanlon:

There are a lot of them though.

Brent Lager:

There's a lot. There's over 4,500 nonprofit organizations in Kansas City. I gave up. I looked for like two months. I made phone calls. I just couldn't find anyone there to help me get connected, and I was, I think, like most people, I didn't know how to get involved. So I stopped trying.

Brent Lager:

Eventually what happened was I was driving home on the first Saturday in 2013, it was snowing outside. I went past 13th and Broadway where there's a Quiznos there and the golden domed cathedral is there and there's a homeless outreach called Morning Glory Cafe and I saw a line of people just wrapped around two blocks and a driving snow storm. I'm just like, "There has to be someone helping someone in there. So let's just stop the car and go ask to help."

Brent Lager:

I was 26 and single, so rejection was not new. So we went for it. Me and my buddy, we stopped the car and we went in and we ended up serving 300 people that day who did not have homes. Morning Glory is still going strong there and if you ever want to serve, I highly recommend it. It's very firsthand experience. You make a hot meal, you serve it over a small table, you clean up afterwards and give them a cold meal on the way out and that filled my heart.

Brent Lager:

Then what changed my life was two six year old kids walked through the line and I was in charge of like, bite-size Snickers that you get at Halloween, right?

Kelly Scanlon:

You were the dessert guy, huh? Very popular.

Brent Lager:

I was the dessert guy. I was the dessert guy. So we have one bag for 300 people. So I have to only give one out, and this little boy, I remember he had multiple coats on, I remember seeing the snow in his hair and he asked for an extra piece for his sister, which still blows my mind. It wasn't for him. He asked for an extra ... He said, "Can I get one for my sister?" And I ended up like having one of those, like life flashes moments. I was just like looking at him and I ended up just pouring as much as the bag as I could into both their bags.

Brent Lager:

They went nuts and like kids and candy, right? Like I go nuts for candy, but like for 10 seconds I gave someone joy, pure joy, just simply by giving something to them and I was like, "I want this feeling all the time." So I started to just volunteer as much as I could on the weekends at as many different places as I could.

Brent Lager:

I have a lot different passions. So like as much as I fall in love with nonprofits, I like to work at a lot of different places. Like I think like all of us, we have a lot of different interests and passions. So for the next four months, me and my buddy volunteered every Saturday, I would look it up during the week and call them, if they didn't pick up, we would just show up.

Brent Lager:

April 2013 came, and by that time it was just like, how do two guys in their mid-twenties make a difference? Like a systematic difference, make change, real authentic change. You just can't keep volunteering one off. So I asked him, I was just like, "What do we do?" And then I was like, "What if we got more people?" And he was like, "Yeah."

Brent Lager:

I mean like, what if you got people who had the same experiences as us, and then they got bit by the bug, just like we did and their soul was on fire, and hopefully they were smarter than us and they could make real change. So the idea I got was like, okay, let's just get more people. So Uncover was born in April, 2013 with the idea of if I make it easier to volunteer, easier to serve, more people would.

Brent Lager:

So then when you do like a whole kind of analysis on what was in the area, and we made out a system and a process of connecting volunteers at organizations, and helping them volunteer, and that's where Uncover was born.

Brent Lager:

Over the years, it just grew from a basic volunteer connection service to programming our education program in schools and corporate groups to put meaning back into service. So those programs grew after a few years. It became the way we started to kind of financially sustain ourselves and grow. Then the last couple years we've evolved to not only include those, but also community organizing and volunteer management services.

Kelly Scanlon:

Now, for someone who is volunteering through Uncover KC, are their names in the pool and they just get assigned anywhere? So this week I might be working here, next week, I might be working there? Or do they choose one place that they really want to focus and concentrate? How does that work?

Brent Lager:

Yeah, that's a great question. When we looked at it, we often saw that it was coming from a nonprofit and needs point of view. So what we wanted to do is come from a volunteer point of view is, what do you want to do? And what's your schedule? Then we'll go find what's out there for you to do.

Brent Lager:

That's how our connection service work is you go on our website or you call us or email us and we ask you a few questions, what's your availability? What causes do you care about? What makes you tick or what ticks you off and how you want to change? And maybe where you're located, if that's an issue, or if you have transportation.

Brent Lager:

We go into our database and we find the non-profits that fit those interests. Then we connect you with their volunteer coordinator or whoever our contact is there and set up you, almost like on a first date, it's like match.com volunteerism in a way. Then we just let you go, and we get out of the way.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned a community organizing model that you follow. Tell us about that.

Brent Lager:

Yeah. So that kind of grew organically out of what we were doing. With large community projects where a lot of different sectors of the community were trying to come together to solve something like digital equity being one example of that, the digital divide is greater than ever, affordable and reliable resources are predominantly not in low to moderate income communities. So-

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. That's been especially bad during the pandemic with the home schooling and work from home and so forth. Yeah.

Brent Lager:

What we have found is since we have a process and a structure that we do, when it comes to community projects and solutions, we get brought in to manage that. So we got brought in for the digital equity task force, which is an arm of the Coalition for Digital Inclusion and it's a working arm and we have been working on projects to help bridge that gap.

Brent Lager:

What it boils down to is using the mythology of collective impact and being that middle organization that just brings the different cross sector collaboration to life, handle the communications, handle the action steps for each of the partners. If we have nonprofits, we have corporate, we got churches, we got city officials, everyone has their full-time jobs, everything else. You need someone in the middle, the straw that stirs the drink, so to speak and that's what our community organizing does.

Kelly Scanlon:

You mentioned the digital, but you're in some other ones as well. Talk to us about some of those.

Brent Lager:

The Liberty Mental Health Alliance, born out of our own kind of thought was, we kept getting more and more working with schools through our education program and every time we kept working with kids and asking what areas of life they want to make an impact, the number one answer and still to this day, is mental health.

Brent Lager:

The amount of stress anxiety that's on our younger generations compared to, I think even my own generation, and I'm 34, is totally different and it's causing a different amount of mental health challenges. So we wanted to create a collective impact group of community leaders and stakeholders coming together to try to address that, not to create new resources because there's a lot of resources already out there, but just to connect people to those resources. That's where the Alliance builds.

Brent Lager:

We found though by chiseling down into a community instead going to citywide, because there are directories and things like that, citywide, but the turnover, the change, and just the outreach needed, it's hard to do it from a citywide aspect. So we started this pilot program up in Liberty, and the Mental Health Alliance focuses on that area. We're still figuring out the pieces of the puzzle. If we can figure that out, we could then replicate that in other communities across the metro.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us about some of the impact that you've had, whether it's stats or whether it's examples, anecdotal examples. We'd love to hear about that.

Brent Lager:

Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, just to start with the stats, is pretty direct. The volunteers we recruited over the last eight years, it's just over 52,000. With those 52,000, we've completed almost 110,000 service hours.

Kelly Scanlon:

It's incredible.

Brent Lager:

Yeah. It's pretty awesome to see. Then with the government monetary evaluation for service hours, which I think is $25.43 cents now, it might have risen, not for sure. But anyway, you multiply that out and it's about $2.7 million value for nonprofits here in the area. So that's always a really cool number to see. I'm more, like you said, I like anecdotal examples-

Kelly Scanlon:

The candy bar experience.

Brent Lager:

Exactly, the candy bar experience. One in particular in the fall, in October, we've done this since we started. We do this thing called [Socktober 00:10:52] and it's a nationwide thing that we just like to be part of, but we just connect people and groups with our schools or corporations or churches with homeless shelters and those groups collect donations of socks and they give them to the organizations before the winter hit.

Brent Lager:

This year, we helped collect 26,000 pairs of new socks to donate. That was from our great partner, WHP and H10 was a part of that, but that also includes school groups, Scouts, churches. We make it really easy to do it. So we just had a wide range of people participating. So that's always one of my favorite examples, and this past fall was by far our biggest one.

Brent Lager:

Some of the other ones is, we have a local partner juvenile detention center and we work with the kids in there, a small group, five to seven, youth ranging from 10 to 18 and they're in there going through some issues. Some of their programming is they have to reconnect with the community and they use our education program to do that.

Brent Lager:

Well, during this past summer, when the social justice movements were coming through those students, those youth couldn't have their voices heard. They didn't felt like they could be a part of it because they were inside the facility. So they use our programming to help connect them with organizations outside, working in the community in that field, racial justice to housing justice, to digital equity.

Brent Lager:

It was really cool because the kids made posters and then also made t-shirt designs for some of those organizations to then use in their efforts. It empowered the youth to have their voice heard and to make impact that they actually cared about and was into. That one sticks out to me too simply because you can do that very same thing in a lot of different ways or a lot of different causes. You just got to give kids and adults the opportunities and the structure to do it.

Kelly Scanlon:

One of the more interesting projects that you're involved with is World building: KC 2040. That's a program that imagines Kansas City, 20 years in the future. What's your vision for Kansas City 20 years from now and how is Uncover KC making that transformation possible?

Brent Lager:

The whole idea behind our world building program is using virtual reality to look ahead in our community, our world, and create where we want to be, how we want to fix things, try out things in virtual reality, see what it looks like and then work backwards to make it happen.

Brent Lager:

So an example being, the city divide, redlining was such a major part of Kansas' history. If we ever want to get where we're bridging that divide and bringing people together, we need to reimagine the way our city is even laid out or the way community centers work or food deserts. You can map that out and you can draw that out. But when you actually walk through and experience it in virtual reality, in takes on a whole new meaning, and then you can also use virtual realities to see what would be the pros and what would be the cons of making changes like that. You can vision cast.

Brent Lager:

Once we complete that, you then walk backwards five years and figure out what needs to happen by 15 years from now for this to happen, and 20 years. Then you walk back five more years, what needs to happen in 10 years? And then you go all way back to present day, you can make a pathway and develop where you want the service project to go.

Brent Lager:

So it's a really cool ... and I actually have not been able to do a pilot yet with it because I haven't been able to find the funding. So that's one goal this year is to find some funding to do a cohort with because I'd love to do it with 18 to 24 year olds and from all walks of life. From the suburbs, the urban, to the rural areas and having them come together and redesign our city and then see what could we, in real-world, do with that. So that's the vision of it.

Kelly Scanlon:

That's how it works. What is your vision though? Do you have something personally? If you were part of that group, in two or three sentences, could you articulate what you want Kansas City to be in 20 years?

Brent Lager:

I think I'd go back to where it all started for me, and I find our society and our community and nationally and locally, internationally, is very polarized. I see service as a way to bring that together. You might not agree with my political views, you might not agree with the way I brush my teeth or the way I mow my lawn, but I think we all can agree, this person needs a meal just to get through the day, or this person needs a home or this animal needs a home. I think there's just so many different ways that service can be that bridge. That's my vision.

Kelly Scanlon:

What you are doing is so incredible with all the connections that you're making that result in all of the service and all of the service leading to so much impact. I know there have to be listeners out there who would love to get involved. What are the ways to get involved and how can they go about doing that?

Brent Lager:

Absolutely. The first thing is, always our website or our social media outlets on Facebook and Twitter, Instagram, just reach out. We have forms on our site that you can fill out and we can get you volunteering tomorrow. We also have information on those sites that show you where nonprofits are located here in Kansas City, at least ... and there's so many more as we talked about. So it's a great place to start.

Brent Lager:

Another thing is I always have time to meet. I always have time just to connect and learn more about what you want and what you need. So call us, (816) 721-5529. Just call us and let me know. We're happy to provide that information. It's also online and you can email, of course.

Brent Lager:

Then I think the third way, and this one is a little out there, but everyone has circles. We all have a school we go to, we all have work, family, friends. Now there's circles all around. Can you get your circle to volunteer just three hours in the next six months? And if you need help doing that, I am here and Uncover is here. If we got everyone in the city to give three hours every six months, then that is maybe a wonderful world. That would be the three ways I'd challenge anyone and share with anyone that they could connect with us.

Kelly Scanlon:

So uncoverkc.org, go out there. All the contact information is on the organization's website and some of the different ways that you can volunteer. You can also take a look at some of the different programs that Brent has talked about today, get a little bit more information and then get in touch with Brent directly, as he said. Brent, thank you so much for everything that you're doing, you are making such a difference. We really appreciate it.

Brent Lager:

Thank you. I really appreciate it and thanks for having me today.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Brent Lager for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Connect, act, impact, as Brent says, those three actions are the essence of everything. Service can take many different forms, but to create real change through service, we must make and foster connections and then take action that has an impact.

Joe Close:

Throughout our history, Country Club Bank has experienced many chocolate bar moments and we've been committed to acting upon them to make a difference in our community. We invite you to join us on this journey of making Kansas City a better place for all its residents. Together, we can make a collective and lasting impact. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.