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Out-Of-Work Bartenders And Baristas Make $15 An Hour To Clean Kansas City Park During Pandemic

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C.J. Janovy
Before the coronavirus, Julia Monte tended bar along 39th Street in Kansas City. She hopes to get back to that job after the pandemic passes.

An effort spearheaded by a former bar owner is lending a helping hand to people who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus.

The idea started with Dr. Andrew Park, an emergency room physician at University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas.

Also a former owner of Nomads, a bar and coffee shop on 39th Street, Park said he'd been thinking a lot about the many bartenders, baristas and wait staff who have been out of work for weeks now amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I know that there's a lot of people in the restaurant industry and artists who are not able to work right now, or not able to work enough,” he said.

He'd also been bothered by the explosive growth of invasive plants in Roanoke Park, near his home in the Roanoke neighborhood off of 39th Street. So, he thought he might be able to solve two problems at once.

"I wanted to bring them down here, and give them a chance to work," Park said.

Park is working with the Roanoke Park Conservancy to fund a project clearing the invasive plants. The effort has also received private donations in recent weeks. Enough funding, in fact, that the workers who show up are paid $15 an hour to clear a corner of the park, which is 100 years old and surrounded by stately homes.

On a recent Saturday in April, 14 people came to work, including Julia Monte.

She used to tend bar at a place along 39th Street until it closed just before the pandemic. The metro-wide shutdown that followed the virus' outbreak ruined her plans to get a new job. Now, she’s looking for something to sustain her until the pandemic has passed and she can find work again.

"I am out of work you know with the bar closing and I didn't find anymore work with all the quarantine regulations and what not," she said on a recent Saturday through a face mask she was wearing, along with a set of olive green coveralls.

She said she doesn't mind the work of cleaning up the park, which can be physically grueling.

“I definitely find myself to be a really active person, and you know during this time I think a lot of people, you know, are turning to outdoor activities, you know, ways to better themselves,” she said.

It's not just displaced restaurant and bar workers rolling up their sleeves. Jake Jester is originally from Kansas City. He attended Rockhurst High School and is now a sophomore at a private college in Colorado. When in-person classes were canceled for the rest of the semester, he came back home.

"These days, I really don't have a lot to do, so I just needed a little bit of work," Jester said. "Heard about this opportunity and decided to come down and help out. It's good to see the progress that we're making."

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C.J. Janovy
Jackson County legislator Scott Burnett (left) and ER doctor Andrew Park both live near the park and are spearheading the effort to clean it up by paying those put out of work by COVID-19.

Invasive plants such as wild honeysuckle and rapidly growing Ailanthus trees, which can damage the park's ecosystem, are being removed. Dead trees, which have fallen down over the years, are also being taken out.

Jackson County legislator Scott Burnett lives in the Roanoke neighborhood. On the Saturday Monte and Jester were working, he manned a chainsaw.

"The Roanoke Park conservancy has been around nine years. This is an area we haven't worked on very much, a lot of dead trees, a lot of the honeysuckle," Burnett said.

On this day, other workers cut up brush with hedge loppers, while others cleared vines and pulled up plants. All wore protective masks and were working apart from each other, adhering to social distancing recommendations.

For the past two weeks, workers have been laboring in two hour shifts, three times a week. It certainly doesn't replace the income from her previous job, but Julia Monte said she plans on helping clear the park for as long as the project lasts.

"I will definitely be looking for work as a bartender when all this is over," she said.

Park, the ER surgeon whose idea this originally was, said it's all about helping others in need.

"A lot of these folks are without work or are not working as much as they usually do. Everyone is struggling right now," he said.

Burnett, the Jackson County legislator helping oversee the cleanup, said with the current funding the project has, they can continue to pay workers for up to another three weeks.

He said donations can be made to the Roanoke Park Conservancy.

Bill Grady does freelance reporting for KCUR.

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