Executive Director Michelle Carlstedt - Bishop Sullivan Center
On right, Bishop Sullivan Center – Executive Director Michelle Carlstedt.

By Abby Hoover

Bishop Sullivan Centers has welcomed a new Executive Director following the October 2021 retirement of longtime President Tom Turner.

As the centers celebrate their 50th year, Michelle Carlstedt is prepared to continue the legacy and brings with her experience in a variety of faith-based and nonprofit organizations.

“I was with Catholic Charities on the Kansas side for five years, where I managed the volunteer department,” Carlstedt said.

From there, she went to Villa St. Francis, a Catholic nursing home in Olathe, to work on development.

“I was there for a couple years, and then I was in Bonner Springs, which is Wyandotte County and I managed the Emergency Assistance Center,” Carlstedt said.

She knew about Bishop Sullivan and their good reputation, which aligned with her experience in food, jobs and emergency aid.

Bishop Sullivan focuses on feeding and clothing those in need, helping them find jobs, and providing other emergency aid through their two locations.

They have two food pantries, one at 6435 E. Truman Rd. and one at 3936 Troost Ave., which is also home to One City Kitchen.

“We actually started as a Catholic food pantry in a church and then Tom, of course, grew the program, so we’ve had food for a long time,” Carlstedt said. “The kitchen, I think we’re about 18 years old, and again, that came from St. James, which is next door to Troost. They had a kitchen and we took the kitchen, moved it over to our location, and then 2019 is when we did the renovation to One City.”

The restaurant style space, complete with exposed brick and murals on the walls, is far from a traditional soup kitchen.

“The original concept was that people would come in and it would be a restaurant experience, so the volunteers would wait on them and there would be plates and silverware and maybe a couple of different options to eat,” Carlstedt said. “Soon after it was opened, COVID hit, which of course, made it difficult.”

They transitioned to a walk-up window for ordering and serving and began using disposable containers. They’ve since reopened inside dining, but it’s still walk-up service.

“We’re still doing about 70 for lunch, although the other day we did 90, and about 250 for dinner,” Carlstedt said. “The volunteers have told me that they think we’re serving more people because the line just moves faster. It was a little bit slower when everybody was coming in and had to wait for a seat, so because of that I think it’s probably important that we keep both [take-away and sit down meals].”

Alexis Urzar, Bishop Sullivan Truman Rd. Food Pantry Manager

The way One City Kitchen serves food is intended to treat people with dignity and respect with a salad bar, which is temporarily closed to prevent the spread of COVID, and a variety of choices for meals.

“We have a professional chef on staff that makes all of our meals so they’re really good, but we also have a focus on nutrition,” Carlstedt said. “So we don’t have salt shakers on the table, for instance, and everybody always gets a vegetable.”

The Troost location doesn’t have a clothing closet, but is located next door to a thrift store, for which Bishop Sullivan provides vouchers.

“Here [on Truman Road] we do have a clothing closet,” Carlstedt said. “We have clothing for the entire family, and families can come to us and get clothing.”

Aside from the new hires Carlstedt has made, most of the Bishop Sullivan staff has been there for ten or more years. 

“It’s pretty unusual in social services, people tend to work a year or two and then they move on, but the people that have worked here a long time are obviously very connected to our mission, but most of them are local to the community and they care about helping their neighbors in need,” Carlstedt said. “And I think that that’s pretty amazing.”

Bishop serves a wide range of people. Carlstedt has seen poverty across the Kansas City metro, but said it’s different here.

“Most of the people that we serve here, a lot of them are homeless,” Carlstedt said. “There’s just a greater need here. I’d say they’re the two big barriers that we have here, and really we have everywhere in the city, are our housing and transportation, but it’s harder here. More people here have housing issues, but also we have a lot of people that are trying to ride the bus and the bus system here isn’t great.”

For those looking for a job, or trying to keep a job, barriers like transportation aren’t as easily solved.

Bishop Sullivan Jobs Program

“We also have a jobs program and one of the things that we do is try to work with employers that are close, understanding that people have that transportation barrier and really trying to help them right here,” Carlstedt said. “They got rid of our bus here. We used to have a Truman Road bus, and then the buses used to be every 30 minutes and it’s my understanding they’re like every 45 minutes or so.”

After holiday donation drives, their pantry and clothes closet are pretty well stocked. However, they always welcome monetary donations and they’re trying to rebuild their volunteer program.

“Bishop Sullivan Center has always relied pretty heavily on volunteers and been able to, and it’s a really beautiful thing how the volunteers are some of the people that have been here for 20, 30 years and so passionately involved,” Carlstedt said. “But COVID, of course, that complicates things and a lot of our older volunteers are really not going to end up feeling comfortable coming back and so I think there are probably some new and creative ways.”

A new volunteer coordinator is starting soon, a position that Bishop Sullivan has never officially staffed, who can help parishes and volunteer groups to get involved.

“During COVID we really cut back to the bare minimum, so it’s almost like starting all over again,” Carlstedt said. “We’ve never had a volunteer coordinator here. We hope it will start to help us get volunteers in the kitchen and the food pantries, at the front desk, but really we could use volunteers for anything and everything.”

From grant writing to computer support, volunteers can help with anything.

Although the Troost location is a little more “vibrant,” being connected to a bus line and having the kitchen, their volunteer opportunities are spread between both locations. They’ve received volunteers from Johnson County and beyond.

“It’s cool how many different groups have really just bought into the mission of Bishop Sullivan Center and found their own ways of supporting us,” Feder said. “One thing we want to do more of is partner with different organizations, with different companies, schools, all sorts of places. We, of course, have certain programs that they can give back to, but it’s almost more fun when they have some kind of passion that they can creatively say, ‘We want to support Bishop Sullivan Center in this way.’”

Whether it’s an Ice Bowl Disc Golf Tournament, a cars program, or professionals coming in to give free consultations, many people have stepped up in their own ways.

As far as funding, the donations are used for household emergency assistance. Because they’re privately funded, Bishop Sullivan has a little more freedom in how they can help – anything from utilities to rent, car payments or dentures.

Bishop Sullivan Center partners with Medicine Cabinet, and last year served more people than any of the organization’s other partners.

“That’s really a way for people to get eyeglasses and prescriptions and other things that aren’t normally provided by an Emergency Assistance Center,” Carlstedt said. “And then in addition to that, they don’t do the dentures, but we have provided dentures for people. It’s kind of a supplement to that plan. But we love that partnership.”

Sometimes it’s the small things that make such a huge difference in quality of life for their clients. 

“We met a guy recently that had his dentures thrown away years before but he’d been doing without,” Carlstedt said. “There are people sometimes that don’t necessarily receive other services, but they’re like, ‘You know, I don’t like to accept help, but I really need help with my teeth,’ and it improves people’s quality of life and that’s really important.”

Carlstedt had never worked with a community kitchen before, which sets Bishop Sullivan Centers apart.

“You can hear them and you can hear the interaction of people speaking to one another and then literally getting up and talking with people about how their day’s going,” Carlstedt said. “A lot of the people that come to us and eat meals with us, it might be their only connection with another human being that day. I like to just go around and talk to people and hear their stories and just reinforce how they’re feeling. That’s what I’ve enjoyed more than anything.”

Carlstedt appreciates the quantity and quality of other social service agencies in Northeast, each with their own strengths.

Fifty years after it began, Bishop Sullivan is a cornerstone of social service in Northeast and Kansas City. Carlstedt brought on Kate Feder, who worked with her at Villa St. Francis, which was 75% Medicaid, to manage marketing and development.

“I wanted something mission focused, I want to be working in-house somewhere I was actually able to kind of be in it,” Feder said. “Michelle reached out to me about the opportunity over here and for me, just getting back into being able to see firsthand that people are being served and know that even when you have a bad day working at a nonprofit, at the end of the day, you’re like, ‘I did good. I can do it. It might have been a rough day. It might have been a long one. I might be exhausted, but I know I made a difference.’”

With social media a major piece of any organization these days, Feder shares updates with supporters, clients and the neighborhood via Facebook.

“We’ve been so focused on the clients and what the needs of the people are and really the service side, which is exactly where the focus should be, but that can make it hard to then get the word out and build that awareness,” Feder said. “There’s so many people that are passionate about the mission, they’ve kind of been able to go for 50 years doing so, and Tom did a wonderful job of communicating his community. But it’s exciting to think about how we spread the word about the good things.”

As Carlstedt and new staff blend with those who have been serving for decades, Bishop Sullivan is planning a block party-style community event later this spring to celebrate 50 years and the future. More information about Bishop Sullivan services and donation information can be found at bishopsullivan.org.