Mattie Rhodes receives funding to prevent violence, address trauma in Latino community

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

Last week, City officials announced that the Department of Justice is awarding Aim 4 Peace a $2 million grant to continue to combat violence in Kansas City. A portion of the grant will fund a three-year contract with the Mattie Rhodes Center to assemble a Hispanic and Latino response team and community health workers to meet with Hispanic survivors following violent events and conduct street outreach in Hispanic neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, April 11, City officials and community leaders met at Mattie Rhodes Center at 148 N. Topping Ave. to announce the initiative.

“We recognize that for years in Kansas City, we have done street outreach, but we have not done it fairly and equitably in every part of our city,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said. “We have not broken down language barriers. Sometimes we haven’t broken down even broader neighborhood barriers. We thank Mattie Rhodes for cooperating with us in our ability to do that.”

The mayor recognized that too many communities are impacted by gun violence, and said they know they need to reach out to youth, increasingly at younger ages, who are experiencing trauma.

Cooperation is key, Lucas continued, pointing out the various organizations who are partners in the initiative.

“Deputy Chief of Police Luis Ortiz has been working with violent crimes for years, but he’s making a tremendous impact in our community, making sure that we see that cooperation,” Lucas said. “My brother Rashid, from Aim 4 Peace, who has done a wonderful job in making sure that we keep doing the work to get out to communities to intervene with people and ensure that we all believe that we can stop gun violence.”

Lucas thanked Dr. Jennifer Collier, who he said for more than two decades has been involved in, has been inspiring, and has been doing hard work at KCPS.

“We are blessed, we are grateful, we are thankful to have her as our permanent superintendent of schools, and we thank you for continuing to do this valuable work,” Lucas said.

Next, he thanked Dr. Marvia Jones, director of the Kansas City Health Department.

“She is committed each and every day to addressing all of the issues that are impacting population health in our community, and she recognized, and has studied it for her entire career, the impact of gun violence, and how we can help prevent it,” Lucas said.

“We are going to make sure that when we talk about violence prevention, it isn’t in one neighborhood, it isn’t in one community,” Lucas said. “We will touch each one, and I will say – and I’ll actually apologize to John [Fierro] and so many others – because we have not always made the same commitment with the Latino community that we have with others. We have been behind in too many situations. We haven’t broken down barriers that we needed to. I hope today is a clean break from that.”

John Fierro, Mattie Rhodes Center President, appreciates the mayor’s leadership in leveraging these resources for the entire community.

“Thank you to Dr. Marvia Jones for entrusting the Mattie Rhodes Center in the implementation of this new city-wide grant,” Fierro continued. “Our unique services model impacts more than 20,000 individuals a year and is aligned with improving the personal health of Kansas City’s Hispanic population.”

As a nationally accredited organization, Mattie Rhodes’ team of professionals work to integrate services, including healthcare, economic development, environmental placemaking, community betterment and more into the neighborhoods they serve.

“Now in our second century of community service, Mattie Rhodes Center is prepared to partner with Aim 4 Peace and utilize the Department of Justice funds,” Fierro said. “We will hire three bilingual English and Spanish street outreach workers to de-escalate violence throughout our city. We will partner with neighborhood associations, school systems, churches and peer organizations to provide social services to Hispanic families impacted by violence. We’ll work with the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, the media, civic leaders and elected officials to integrate our efforts to reduce violence in Kansas City.”

Fierro shared that more than a decade ago, his friend Joe Arce, publisher of KC Hispanic News, came to him following the tragic murder of his teenage nephew and spoke to the importance of bringing attention to those Hispanic families that were impacted by homicides in Kansas City.

“It was from there we began to provide counseling services and social emotional support to our families,” Fierro said.

Mattie Rhodes places social workers in public schools, charter schools, and parochial schools, providing very important social emotional support to children in times of need, where they are at, as well as to the families.

Aim 4 Peace has been working to stop violence in Kansas City since 2008. Rashid Junaid said today is the beginning of an evolution. When they thought of credible messengers in the Latino community, the natural partner was Mattie Rhodes’ ability to do conflict mediation and case management for high risk individuals to reduce violence.

Mattie Rhodes will receive $600,000 for their portion of the grant. Jones said the health department, which will administer the grant, is already seeking additional funding for the program. Voters recently passed a 3% sales tax for recreational marijuana that will fund neighborhood quality of life improvements, refuse and neighborhood cleanup services, homeless prevention services, and violence prevention services. Earlier this year, the City pledged $6 million per year for the next five years for violence prevention.

The other part of the program is already underway. Aim 4 Peace and partners has canvassed 215 hours so far this year to enroll participants. Junaid said this is just the start, and they hope to keep expanding. Looking at the high number of Hispanic homicide victims, he said they want to reduce those numbers.

“Many times we went to the hospital bed and we had a barrier because we didn’t speak Spanish,” Junaid said. “At a homicide scene, we weren’t able to communicate and now we are able to communicate with those families because Mattie Rhodes is in the field and doing this work.”

Kansas City Health Department Director Dr. Marvia Jones and the department are working on comprehensive strategies in addition to community focused work of Aim 4 Peace and Mattie Rhodes.

She wants the community to know that violence prevention is a public health matter.

“We can predict which communities, which neighborhoods, which areas, which parts of our city are more likely to experience violence, which populations are more at risk,” Jones said. “We know that people who have financial distress inside their home, we know that areas where there is not the best academic achievement, we know that in neighborhoods, historical disinvestment is a risk factor. We know that previous exposure to violence is a risk factor.”

Jones said it makes sense to address key risk factors. They know some people have already been exposed to violence, and some people are at greater risk.

“Money makes the world around, so we are really happy for the expansion and the support that our city leadership has put into place,” Jones said. “One of the things that we will be doing to address some of those risk factors include increasing the number of mentors – maybe those formal mentors, as well as informal mentors – and looking at how we clean our neighborhoods and how they look and feel. You’ve heard a lot of discussion already about trash pickup and that sort of thing, these things are not separate, they are all integrated, and they all make a difference into how at risk our communities are, not just violence, but for things like low graduation rates and opportunities for home ownership.”

No single agency or department has the solution, but because the issues are connected, partnerships will make a difference, Jones said.

KCPS Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Collier, called the new initiative an amazing, culturally responsive approach to addressing violence and trauma that many students and families are dealing with.

“We serve 90% students of color in KCPS and 27% of that population are Hispanic students, and that is our fastest growing demographic at KCPS,” Collier said. “We also serve 24% of our students who speak English as a second language, so to know that we’re going to have these additional resources and support to help our families is amazing.”

Collier said Kansas City Public Schools cannot do this work alone, they rely on partnerships with the community to help serve the whole needs of their children.

“We love to partner with agencies and partners who have missions and visions that align with ours, and over the years, Mattie Rhodes has been an organization that has wholeheartedly stood alongside KCPS and supported us in many ways,” Collier said. “They provide mental health resources, staff for our buildings, mentors in our buildings, bilingual services, tutoring to our children, extracurricular activities, which is very important for our children to have.”

What this partnership signals for KCPS is that there will be even broader and deeper support that can be provided to families. Collier said students can’t focus on academics unless their mental and physical safety needs are met.

“In 2022, we had 17 homicides in this area,” Deputy Chief Ortiz said. “That’s not even counting the 69 non-fatal shootings that we had.”

Ortiz said there were also 905 emotionally disturbed incidents where people were in crisis.

“This is a great opportunity for us in the Hispanic community, for everybody, to take notice of this,” Ortiz said. “This is happening. In the past, we’ve always talked about how the police department is responsible for the crime that is happening here, but we also know that it takes a whole community to do better and to ensure that this is not happening more.”

Ortiz said a lack of conflict resolution skills is driving some of the violence. Mattie Rhodes and Aim 4 Peace are going to be providing those skills for the people that are still struggling in this area.

So far this year, there are over 50 homicides in Kansas City, Mo.

“I think the most important part is that this is a recognition that we are investing in our young people, and there’s nothing more important for us to do,” Lucas said. “We spend a lot of time debating literally everything else – I’m often in those debates, so I’ll take my credit or blame for it – but this is the most important thing we can do: making sure that children who are in Dr. Collier’s schools have resources, know about conflict resolution opportunities, have mentorship opportunities like those from Mattie Rhodes. That is why we’re here today.”

The violence in Kansas City doesn’t have to be the status quo, Lucas said.

“But those of us who grew up here, we have known about challenges on our streets, and in some neighborhoods, for generations,” Lucas said. “I believe we can change that. I think that’s what everybody is here for today.”

The progress of the initiative will be extensively evaluated, as it’s funded through a federal grant.

“We will be tracking things like, obviously, the number of people who are reached and mentored, also tracking the number of people who decided to change their path,” Jones said. “So we look at their risk factors at the beginning of the program when they first kind of start engaging with Mattie Rhodes and others, with Aim 4 Peace, and then reassess their risk factors. Then, the goal is always to move them to the point where their risk factors change so they are no longer exposing themselves to certain high risk behaviors. We can see a difference in their outcomes.”

Crispin Rea, who grew up in Northeast, works for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office and is running for City Council’s 4th District, is optimistic about the collaborative approach.

“This is an example of what we don’t have enough of right now, and that is a collaborative approach that includes not just law enforcement, not just the elected officials, but also the community organizations and social service agencies who are actually doing work in the community,” Rea said. “That’s what this represents to me. I think this is an important piece of how we reduce violent crime in neighborhoods.”

Rea, who previously worked at Mattie Rhodes, knows the agency will use the funds well and have measurable results.

“Having grown up as a Mexican American kid in the inner city, I know personally what it’s like to be exposed to all the risk factors that often determine if kids like me end up dead or in prison,” Rea said. “For me, it’s important to see us making that investment in communities of color, specifically in this neighborhood, in the Hispanic community where we do experience a disproportionate level of violence.”

Fierro said Mattie Rhodes has an ability to respond to community problems and be accountable. This is not the first time they’ve received federal funding for their work, and they will be good stewards of the funds. He knows violence impacts every facet of an individual’s life, and many of their clients face challenges related to anxiety and depression. Mattie Rhodes’ team has built relationships in the community and are a trusted resource.

“We would not exist without responding to community needs,” Fierro said. “Everything that we do is for the betterment of the individual and the neighborhood block they live in, their household, the surrounding community.”

Fierro thinks back to Mattie Rhodes, the organization’s namesake, who, at 19 years old, as she was dying of typhoid fever, left behind funds so her friends could continue her work of helping the most vulnerable in Kansas City.

“I’m just honored that we’ve been able to sustain this agency for this long,” Fierro said.

A portion of a $2 million Department of Justice grant will help Mattie Rhodes continue their work and increase violence prevention in the Latino communities they serve.

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