The ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Crown Center sparkles with Kansas City's philanthropic elite. A quick scan of the room picks up familiar faces from the business pages, such as Embarq CEO Tom Gerke with his wife, Rhonda. The open bar is rocking the way an open bar should be when guests pay $300 a ticket.
They're here for "Kids Night Out," the fundraiser for the nonprofit Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City. The group spends approximately $2,397 annually for each member — the cost of services and maintaining a safe place to hang out after school. But it charges only $15 a year per child, and, with many parents facing financial hardship, the fee often goes uncollected. No kids are turned away.
Outside the ballroom doors, more guests sip drinks and examine the tables of silent-auction items lining the hall. Among other treasures, the millionth Harley-Davidson built at the factory in Kansas City leans on its kickstand, awaiting bids. Several of tonight's guests, asked about the charity by a reporter, confuse it with the unrelated Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Unlike that group, though, the Boys & Girls Clubs' mission depends on location. The five centers across Kansas City — one in Wyandotte County, two in Independence and two on the city's East Side — are in parts of the metro rarely traveled by the well-heeled.
On the mezzanine, one floor beneath the ballroom, a dozen kids from each of the metro's five Boys & Girls Clubs devour pizza while the adults upstairs dine. The entertainment for the evening is an Inside the Actors Studio-style interview with Julie Andrews. The adults know her as Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp; the kids are more likely to recognize hers as the voice of the queen in Shrek 2 and Shrek the Third.
When the night is over, a Boys & Girls Clubs spokesman will call the 2009 event a success and say it raised more than $600,000 for the charity.
It's a healthy sum, especially during a recession. But it's not enough for what the Boys & Girls Clubs want to do.
If a donor to the Boys & Girls Clubs is curious about where the money goes, he or she needs only to step inside the 47,000-square-foot Thornberry Unit, at 43rd Street and Cleveland. The core of the building went up in 1935, but an $8.9 million renovation that began in 2002 has transformed it into "the Cadillac of clubs," as chapter President David Smith calls it.
Inside, the place looks like a college student union — office space, Wi-Fi accessibility in the lobby, computer labs and a TV lounge for the older teens. Next door to the lounge is a well-equipped weight room overseen by Program Director Anna Martin, a weightlifting coach who was an alternate in the 2004 Olympic trials. The shiny blond floor of the new gym runs the length of two full basketball courts. The old gym, still in very good shape, remains in an older part of the building, along with an Olympic-sized pool.
At the club, as the older teens call it, programming includes visits by tutors to help with schoolwork, and visits by health professionals, who talk about things like sex (that is, not having it).
A carrot-and-stick approach is at work here: homework periods and tutoring sessions in exchange for coveted gym access.
A set of concrete stairs leads to the second floor, where a cafeteria serves breakfast, lunch and snacks. A small eating area overlooks the gym through Plexiglas windows.
Across the street is Cleveland Park, where a $2 million baseball diamond was recently installed for the club's RBI program — Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities.