We Kan – And We Are
Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
WE KAN – AND WE ARE
It was a Kansas moment, one that made me feel flat-out proud of my fellow Kansans.
I stood inside the Whiting Café, watching new windows go in, the ceiling being painted, the stove being degreased.
Nearly everything had been removed from the building; volunteers were renovating the 25-seat restaurant in the Jackson County town of Whiting (pop. 206).
This was the pilot project of We Kan, part of the Kansas Sampler Foundation. We Kan is a group of Kansans working together to find ways to keep their small communities and hometown businesses viable.
On a hot summer morning, about 40 people from across the state, most of them strangers to each other, worked side by side. I observed kindness, laughter, teamwork, camaraderie. It was well worth the 90-minute drive to Whiting just to absorb that positive energy.
In this world, some people are naysayers; they stand around, kick the dirt, and mutter things like, “We can’t,” or “There’s no money for this project,” or “It’s not our problem.”
On the flip side, the Whiting Café, dismantled and in disarray, was filled with purposeful activity and, well, joy.
At the makeover site hung a “We Kan!” banner. Beneath “We Kan!” someone had posted a sticker with the hand-written words, “And we are.”
Many of these workers had never been to Whiting before, didn’t personally know Rosa Thomas, the café’s owner. But they heard the call for help and came to refurbish the restaurant. During the weekend of June 26-28 about 100 people showed up in work clothes.
Kansas Sampler Foundation Director Marci Penner said that as volunteers appeared, they sorted themselves out. “I’m a window guy.” “I’m a floor guy.” “I’m a cabinet guy.”
“It’s a great combination of skilled people and hard workers,” Penner said.
As I spoke with her, men built shelves, a woman defrosted a freezer, others planted flowers outside beneath a snazzy new mural which proclaims “Food so great, you’ll scrape your plate.”
Five thousand dollars was raised for the project. “Everyone gets turned on by how they can help,” Penner said, “Some by sending in $5, others by volunteering.”
The Whiting Café project was the first transaction of the We Kan Bank, a social capital experiment. The We Kan Bank plans to have a website in which volunteer-led communities can open “accounts of need” and others can open “accounts of support,” offering services, skills, or money.
Penner said that through the We Kan Bank, a family or group could find a project that fits their skill level, contact that community and then make it happen. And, once a year or so, the We Kan group will likely host a major “I Kan Help” project such as the Whiting Café makeover.
“Deciding on Rosa was one of those serendipitous things,” Penner said. “Rosa called me and invited me to her café’s 25th anniversary in August.”
Penner had a calendar conflict and couldn’t attend, but then the idea to renovate Rosa’s restaurant popped into her head.
“We’re not a government agency,” Penner said. “There’s no red tape. I can just send out an e-blast (to We Kan and Kansas Explorers Club members) and the next minute the project is underway.”
“The amazing thing is that Rosa never asked for any of this. She just got chosen,” Penner wrote to volunteers after the event. “Rosa and her café got picked because anyone who can keep a restaurant open for 25 years in a town of 200 deserves a prize. This was her prize.”
I located Rosa Thomas at the Whiting community center. She and other local women were preparing lunch for the volunteers.
Thomas was and is, as you might expect, overwhelmed by the enormous gift. When I mentioned the goodhearted nature of the workers, she agreed, “Aren’t they nice? They’re so beautiful.”
Yes, beautiful, hardworking, and generous. For many of the volunteers, fixing up the Whiting Café will have no direct benefit for them – they just wanted to help, to be of service. It was a perfect Kansas moment, indeed.
Copyright 2009 ~ Cheryl Unruh
Other Flyover blog entries on the Whiting Cafe.
For more photos and stories about the project, check out the Kansas Sampler Blog:
And on Von Rothenberger’s blog: Working on the Whiting Cafe Makeover
Jan Biles’ article in the Topeka Cap-Journal: Volunteers Lend a Hand at Cafe