Except for the chain of events it spurred in the victim's life, the assault and robbery of Brad Grabs 14 years ago in the Northeast neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, would not have been particularly notable.
Despite the ensuing anger and fear, Grabs says prayer and reflection on the events of that Sunday afternoon led him to believe his assaulters weren’t “bad kids,” he told KCUR’s Brian Ellison on a recent episode of Up To Date. They were youngsters caught in a bad situation with little opportunity for positive growth.
Instead of resentment, he says, he developed a yen to better his community.
At the time, Grabs was a theology teacher at Rockhurst High School, and even his students sensed a need in him to improve his community.
“I was really challenged by my students [at Rockhurst], because they knew my beliefs, to live them out more fully,” he says. “I really had the desire to not only teach about helping people on the margins, but I really felt a call to actually live it out.”
Grabs left Rockhurst, and in 2002, founded The Learning Club of KCK in what used to be Blessed Sacrament grade school. There, he and a few staff and volunteers spent time mentoring and tutoring low-income kids from the urban core.
Grabs found an opportunity in 2008 for a bigger footprint while on a police ride-along. The officer he was with received and responded to a domestic disturbance call at Juniper Gardens public housing complex, near 3rd Street and Troup Avenue. Blocks before arriving at the location of the reported crime, though, the officer pulled over.
“We waited for two more patrol cars to come before they would even enter the complex,” Grabs says. When they finally arrived on the scene, “what I noticed was lots of kids there — kids playing, some of them were watching this whole thing unfold, just lots of kids everywhere.”
“It really struck me as a very sad statement about our community, that an area where police are afraid to enter [alone], lots of our children are growing up,” he says.
Grabs approached the Kansas City, Kansas, Housing Authority to see about the possibility of bringing The Learning Project of KCK to Juniper Gardens.
“They were thrilled,” he says.
The Juniper Gardens program has been operating since June 2012, but it took a while for the students to take to it.
“I don't think that they expected to have a good-quality program available to them, and it took some time for them to understand that we were going to be there for the long haul,” he says.
Since then, The Learning Project has expanded to the Chalet Manor apartments in Argentine, the St. Margaret’s public housing sites off of Mill Street and Ray Avenue, and the Cyrus K. Holliday public housing sites on the 1700 block of South 37th Court.
“At each of those sites, we operate on the grounds of the public housing complex, so the kids just come to us after school,” says Grabs.
His students often lack easy access transportation options and have low levels of parental involvement. Bringing his program to the projects eliminates the need for either of those things.
“It’s very important to us to be where the kids are, because we really have a passion to reach the most marginalized kids,” he says.
Though a focus on improving the children’s capacity in reading, writing, and math is the primary focus, Grabs loves to see the unlikely friendships develop between students from disparate upbringings, and between students and mentors who would otherwise have very little in common.
“It's an opportunity for people from a very different background to connect with some of our kids, and I think it's really helped them to grow respect for one another,” he says.
The volunteers Grabs works with are primarily from the suburbs, but he encourages people from all over the metro to take part, “as long as they care about kids and want to be a good example to them.”
“I take very little credit for what it has become,” Grabs says. “We have over 100 people from throughout the metro area that are involved with our kids,” and the program works with about 120 students every week.
Grabs says he’s seen some kids transform through the program, “not only in academics, but in our students who, maybe for the first time, have an adult in their life … who's a good model for them and they can really look up to that person.”
Luke X. Martin is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3 and an associate producer for 'Up To Date.' He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.