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Banking on KC - Erik Dickinson of Urban Ranger Corps

Banking on KC - Erik Dickinson of Urban Ranger Corps

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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 Erik Dickinson, president of the Urban Ranger Corps.

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome, Erik.

Erik Dickinson:

Hi, Kelly, thanks for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

Tell us about what the program accomplishes. I know that it is designed to prepare at-risk youth in the inner city for better futures, but how does the program accomplish that?

Erik Dickinson:

What we work with our young men to do is have them ready to navigate middle school or high school and be ready to make decisions once they graduate. The biggest thing that we want them is to be able to make the decision on four different avenues or areas or buckets, as we call them. To go to college, go to military or law enforcement, trade or tech school, or to start a career. We're really trying to just get young men ready to make plans and to graduate with a diploma in one hand and a plan for their future in the other.

Kelly Scanlon:

Father John Wandless was the founder of the Urban Ranger Corps. What was his motivation? What was his inspiration?

Erik Dickinson:

You know, Father John was a great man. Father John's biggest deal, I think, was really trying to recreate somewhat of his own childhood, if you will. He grew up in blue-collar Pittsburgh in a neighborhood that had dads all over the area helping young men become men and I really think that's what he was trying to recreate. He spoke a lot about having his parents around and I think one of the things that was most important to him is there's young men that don't have dads or men in their families. In his neighborhood, if you didn't even have a dad, there were other dads that took care of you to help you learn and navigate to become a man. He started working in the urban Corps here in Kansas City and saw that void and felt like there needs to be something to help young men learn to be a man.

Erik Dickinson:

He left Pittsburgh, went to the Navy, got out of the Navy, came to Kansas City, started a family here in Kansas City, lost his wife in the early nineties, and really leaned on his Catholic faith to get him through that situation and that hardship. During that time, he decided to become a Catholic priest. He really wanted to give back. One of his first parishes was in this neighborhood and he saw the neighborhood as a place of that area that just didn't have a lot of dads and a lot of men helping young men learn how to make good decisions.

Erik Dickinson:

So I think that was trying to recreate how he grew up and an avenue for young men that he often said the young men that we serve see the world without a place for them in it. He always wanted to make sure that our young men felt like they had a place, they had a place to go, they had a safe place, and that they belong here in the city and in the world.

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk to us about how you got involved as president.

Erik Dickinson:

This is one of my favorite stories. I actually worked for the Boy Scouts of America for about 15 years. I worked for the YMCA for about four and a half years. I answered an ad that basically said do you enjoy working with urban youth? I applied and I said yes and probably six months later, I get a call from a head hunter who took me out to lunch. The process kind of started after I forgot about it. It was really interesting just the depth and the questioning and I didn't meet father John until probably the third meeting with a head hunter. I think they were really taking their time trying to find the right person to take the organization to the next level.

Erik Dickinson:

Father John often would say he's carried the water as far as he can and he needs somebody with a background in nonprofit and just youth development to take this program to the next level. So I was fortunate to be selected to do that in June of 2012.

Kelly Scanlon:

So you've been president now for nearly 10 years. What age group does the program serve and any other eligibility requirements?

Erik Dickinson:

We start now taking in seventh and eighth-grade young men. Eight years ago or so we used to take sophomores and above. I wanted to start a little bit younger just to have more time with our young men so we rolled it back to take seventh, eighth, and ninth graders six to eight years ago, and now we take just seventh and eighth-graders. The only requirements are basically a rising seventh or eighth-grader come in for an interview process and decide or buy into what we do.

Erik Dickinson:

We often tell young men if you're looking for just a summer job, we'll help you find one, it just won't be with us because what we do is it's a lot more in-depth than just a summer job. Our young men are paid for what they do throughout the summer, but we're trying to really make a difference in their lives, so it's not the hamburger stand or the mall, but if we're trying to work on your character as well as a little money in your pocket.

Kelly Scanlon:

What are some of the programs that you have where they can earn the money where they can start building these skills and start working out in the community? Talk to us about some of those programs and how they're structured.

Erik Dickinson:

Well, our summer program pre-COVID is a program that's between six and eight weeks where all of our young men will have a job for the summer. We work basically 7:30 to 2:00, Monday through Thursday, and Friday is an enrichment day where we just do classroom work. But on those team days that we're out working, we have a team that works on urban gardens in Kansas City.

Erik Dickinson:

If you've seen an urban garden in Kansas City, our young men probably have worked on it, I'm willing to bet. My favorite garden to tell people to look at is at about 51st and [inaudible 00:05:37]. You would drive right by it and miss it. But we do the urban gardens here in Kansas City.

Erik Dickinson:

We also have cleared trail over in Swope Park. We do community service work. Let's say your church needs some help in their church basement or their church pantry. So basically we keep our boys busy throughout the summer just doing different things here in the community.

Kelly Scanlon:

I know you also have some other programs. You've got what, three main content areas?

Erik Dickinson:

The program was started with the idea of working with the six zip codes here in the core of the city. There was an article, it's probably been 25 years ago now, that called this the murder factory of Kansas City and we really tried to focus on. The original focus, Father John's focus, was taking young men from those six zip codes and trying to make a difference in their lives.

Erik Dickinson:

We've expanded our program. We now have young men from Kansas City, Kansas, we have young men from Bonner Springs, we have young men from Lee's Summit, Raytown, Kansas City, north of the river. We've expanded the program to get outside of just the six core zip codes that we started with. We would probably say 85% of our young men live in that zip code, but most of the work that we do is all in that area.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've got career academic achievement programs. You've got financial entrepreneurial education programs. Talk to us a little bit more about those.

Erik Dickinson:

During our school year program is based around those kinds of things. Each one of our young men creates a ICAT, which an individual career and academic plan. That plan is their roadmap to where they want to be in their lives post-high school, and actually throughout high school. It's also a way that we teach them to set goals for fundraising, for saving money, for academic things, but also fun things. We have people say things like they want to master a video game, so we let them have some fun goals in there as well. But the whole idea is teaching them how to set goals and how to get ready for life after high school, or just life in general. You don't start setting goals until you're probably much older, so we're just trying to get them wired differently to start setting goals and be ready to do that.

Erik Dickinson:

But during our school year process, every young man has an ICAP. Every young man also does at least 20 hours of community service where we go out and do different things in the community to make sure that we're giving back. It was a big deal to Father John, it's a big deal to me, that our young men learn to give back. I think that's a lost art that more people need to learn how to help others, but actually, just give back. It's not always about financial things. There are things like cleaning up neighborhoods. There's things about picking up trash in your own neighborhood that just gets rid of blight and those kinds of things.

Erik Dickinson:

We also talk with our young men about things like the food desert and food insecurity and making sure they understand that there may be liquor stores on every other corner, but you need fresh vegetables and we need to make sure you understand that growing fresh vegetables are important to your community, they're important to your lifestyle. That's why we started working with the urban gardens to make sure they understood the whole concept of healthy food and healthy living.

Kelly Scanlon:

To do this, I'm sure you must have some community partners as well. Who are some of them and how do you work with them? How's that relationship work?

Erik Dickinson:

Some of our larger community partners would be the city of Kansas City, Missouri. We have contracts that we mow blighted areas here in Kansas City. We also a newer contract also with the city of Kansas City, Missouri, with the Parks and Rec Department where we're actually mowing and taking care of Union Cemetery, which was one of the oldest cemeteries in the state of Missouri. We spent time out there working with headstones and just cleaning up after a pretty bad storm. So it's kind of cool to go back and now be the caretaker of that year-round. So we do that as a contract to mow that twice a month to keep that area looking nice and neat.

Erik Dickinson:

We also do things with the Kansas City, Missouri school district. We're now starting to work our program inside of the normal school day and their mentoring program. We do that in three different middle schools in Kansas City, Missouri. We're branching out into the center middle school. COVID has kind of slowed down some of our progress in getting into school buildings, but one of the things that we have found is that our program is something that really has been successful in different areas and we're just trying to find how can we put it out in different places. Especially for young men who may not be able to, for whatever reason, spend their summer with us. How can we get them involved and during our normal mentoring program in doing what we do during the school year?

Kelly Scanlon:

Talk with us about the tangible impact this program has had on the individual young men that are involved in it as well as on the community at large.

Erik Dickinson:

One of the things that come to mind, we've had a couple young men that I will call our superstars. There's a young man by the name of Frenklyn Piggie who is going to start physical therapy school at the University of Kansas this summer. He just graduated from University of Arkansas. He's been with us since he was probably 13 or 14 years old. I think that we've made a difference in his life through scholarship, through working, but also he will tell you that the comradery and the family atmosphere was a positive outtake, if you will, to what we do. I mean, I think that he really enjoyed the time he has spent with us, just being around us.

Erik Dickinson:

I think when you look at the community, I think of things like beautification programs in different places in Kansas City, where we go out and adopt a block and we go out and we've planted flowers, we've cleaned up. We do neighborhood cleanups. We've done work here at our office to put flowers out and just make things better. We're trying to teach our young men to take pride in their neighborhoods, take pride in where they live, take pride in themselves.

Erik Dickinson:

They're taught to be leaders and they're taught that wearing an Urban Ranger sweatshirt hoodie is a badge of honor, that as you wear that, people expect more of you when they see you like that in the neighborhood. People walk up to you and will just assume that you're a good kid because they know that you've been taught well, you've been interviewed, you've been in this program, the lineage of Father John and all of the things that have come out of this community are being put back into you.

Erik Dickinson:

I think that we just see a difference in the young men that we have. Our graduation rate is about 98, 99% of a young man that with us the whole time he's in high school. Over the last few years, it's probably 100%. I don't think we've lost anyone that's been with us throughout their high school career in the last three or four years.

Kelly Scanlon:

I would imagine, too, that in addition to all of the great things that you just mentioned, that another form of community building that occurs when you take it down to the neighborhood level that people get to know each other better. With the young men out there working visibly in the neighborhood, that the neighbors begin to talk with them and that a certain amount of trust begins to grow and there's more of a connection.

Erik Dickinson:

Absolutely. I think that one of the worst things that's out there in the world today is a young black boy is always presented in a negative light. But I can tell you I've got a hundred young men that aren't out here doing any of those things and it does help when they're in your neighborhoods so people can talk to them. We've had people that stop and will share their life story because they want to tell somebody at the story, but maybe they don't have anyone to talk to. When we have our young men out like that in a neighborhood, we often get stopped and people will just tell them what's going on in their lives. I think it helps our young men feel like people care about them.

Erik Dickinson:

I think that's the biggest thing, or one of the biggest hurdles, is we have a generation of young people that feel like, as Father John always said, that there's no place for them. So when we get a chance to interact with the community, it's always good for them to do that.

Erik Dickinson:

Another thing that we do, again, when there's not a COVID, there's no pandemic, we have a [inaudible 00:13:28] new scholarship fund, but we have our other tour where you go out and see business owners and they get a chance to see people that look like them that are now business owners and business leaders who you can say I grew up in your high school, I grew up on your block, I've made it and here are the good and bad ugly that helped me become who I am today.

Erik Dickinson:

Hard work often pays off in ways that people don't understand. But if you don't realize that and get that instilled in you early, maybe you miss that lesson. So that's also important to us that we put our young men in front of people that look like them, but also they're very successful with and tell them what it took to be successful.

Kelly Scanlon:

Are there about 700 and some young men who have gone through the program?

Erik Dickinson:

That sounds about right. It's 700, 800, or something like that. Yeah.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've touched quite a few lives in the relatively short time that the organization has been in existence. Fast forward 10 years and looking back from that future vantage point what would you like to be able to point to that because of the Urban Ranger Corps, Kansas City is a better place now.

Erik Dickinson:

You know, that's a great question. So I've worked at youth development for longer than I care to admit, almost 30 years at this point, and I often say to people that I do something that I may never know if it works. I won't know if it works until 20 or 30 years later. These young boys will have to be fathers and dads before I know if it really worked, if it made a real difference. So if you would ask me to look back in 10 years, what I'd like to see is the young men that have been in this program are doing great things in the community, they're great as husbands and fathers, they're great men, and they're just working to help the community, they're still giving back.

Erik Dickinson:

Maybe one of our young males will be the mayor of Kansas City one day. We've had a couple young men that say that all the time. But the biggest deal is how are they treating their families? How are they treating their communities? Will that help the violence in Kansas City subside some? I hope so. I think that we teach young men things like conflict resolution.

Erik Dickinson:

We're doing things to try to teach them how to save money, how to be homeowners, how to do some of the things that have crippled the neighborhoods in the past. How do we break some of those cycles? So I'd like to say in 10 years that a young man that is 12 or 13 is in his early 20s, is he graduating from college, is he starting a career? I think of my own son that just graduated from Missouri State over the weekend, and to see him ready to start teaching school, I'd like to see more of our young men that are right at that starting point of their lives and just ready to go out and do and conquer the world, is what I'd like to see in the next 10 years.

Erik Dickinson:

I'd also like to see our program grow and blossom to the point that we're now taking young men as early as kindergarten or first grade. I mean, I think that the more we can put our hands around young men sooner, the better. I'd like to see us have a K through 12 program that we are really molding and shaping the future of Kansas City. I really think that we're on our way to doing that.

Kelly Scanlon:

To that end, if any of our listeners would like to get involved with the Urban Ranger Corps to help you with your current activities and to give you the support that you need to grow it according to the vision that you just described, what are some of the ways that they can engage?

Erik Dickinson:

One of the things that we're really trying to work on is our social media presence and trying to make sure we're sharing the good stories that we have. I often joke that we're the best-kept secret in Kansas City. So we're always trying to find ways to just find more friends, find more people that are interested in what we do, trying to find more community support for the idea that the young men that we are working with now are future employees of Kansas City, how do we help them get ready to be the employees that people are going to have to hire? So we need more people to just help us help them.

Erik Dickinson:

One of the things that people often talk about or speak to is fundraising. Fundraising is important, but if you don't have anything to help build the character, all the money in the world won't really fix anything. So we're always trying to find different avenues of people that can give back, to share their stories, share their expertise. If you are a marketer or you understand marketing, we're always trying to find people to help us market our programs. We're always looking for people to help us with different events. We have an annual dinner that we're always looking for volunteers to help us run that dinner.

Erik Dickinson:

Looking at our website and just checking out different committees that we have, we're always looking for people that really want to, I say get their hands dirtier, just give back. So we're always looking for people that really have a heart for service, have a heart for young men, and really want to see Kansas City's best-kept secret grow.

Kelly Scanlon:

What is the best way to get in touch with you? Would that be through your website, urckc.org?

Erik Dickinson:

Also, my email address is my name, erik.dickinson@urckc.org.

Kelly Scanlon:

Again, you mentioned social media. So I am assuming that you have a Facebook presence and if anybody wants to go out and connect with you through the Facebook page and when you post some of those stories you were talking about, they can share those stories with their friends in the greater community.

Erik Dickinson:

Yeah, absolutely. We're always trying to find new people to share our stories and get the word out to more and more of their friends and people.

Kelly Scanlon:

Erik, thank you so much for being with us on this episode of Banking on KC, sharing the mission of the Urban Ranger Corps, and for all the work that you do and all of the people that you work with do in continuing Father John's legacy and building up these young men in our community.

Erik Dickinson:

No, thank you. Thanks for having us. We love to tell the story. I think that Father John, again, is the best-kept secret here in Kansas City. He was a great, great man who had a huge, huge heart for servicing and really wanting to give back, so he is one that we all look towards and want to emulate the best way we can.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Erik Dickinson for joining us on this episode of Banking on KC to share the inspiration behind the Urban Ranger Corps and the work it does with young men in our communities.

Joe Close:

The vision of Father John Wandless, the Urban Ranger Corps has offered nearly 800 young men an opportunity to acquire work experience, provide service to the community, and develop life skills that prepare them for a successful future. A soldier in the war on poverty during the 1960s, Father John knew the power of hope. By providing young men with skills, resources, and connections that lasts a lifetime, the Urban Ranger Corps helps them to have hope for themselves and to believe in a future that embraces their dreams. Now serving young men between the ages of 12 and 18, Erik would like to see the program expand to accept participants beginning at the kindergarten level so hope can be instilled even earlier and those dreams have even more years to take shape.

Joe Close:

As an organization, Country Club Bank is proud to be an Urban Ranger Corps community partner. We are grateful to our own Chris Thompson and his wife, Julie, Father John's daughter, for the work they do personally with Erik and his team to ensure the success of the Urban Ranger Corps program.

Joe Close:

Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, Member FDIC.