Executive Director of Children’s First CEO Kansas Kathleen Webb ‘79 said her journey into the nonprofit world was all God’s idea.
She was a history major when Newman University was known as Kansas Newman College. Right out of college, Webb worked in radio advertising for many years. That career is where she learned about the nonprofit sector. She was soon drawn into a new career that would take her down a much different path.
Her first nonprofit role was as a grant writer for the local Wichita ALS chapter. She said her history major set her up for success in that role because of the abundance of research entailed in grant writing.
Even though she has moved on, she still writes grants part time for Breakthrough Wichita.
Transitioning to Children’s First
With the help of her recently-graduated daughter at the time, Webb transitioned to Children’s First in 2016.
The organization focuses on raising money to send low-income children to private schools and providing much-needed services for the families.
Schools they help range from as far north as St. Patrick parish in Wichita to as far south as St. Cecilia parish in Haysville.
The parish they started helping first was the one God had placed her in when she married her husband of 13 years.
“I thought I would sell my home and he would sell his and we’d buy a home together,” explained Webb. “But he had a different idea. He asked if I would consider moving into his home — the home he grew up in. I never envisioned living in St. Patrick parish but God knew what he was doing.”
After moving into her husband’s childhood home, which is in St. Patrick parish, the priest told her of a family in crisis that lived across the street from the church. Webb said she listened, but went home without really doing anything.
For two weeks.
But God repeatedly pushed onto Kathleen’s heart to do something. She kept getting the message that she could be the one to make a difference. So she called her priest to make sure he found someone to help, thinking she would not be needed. His response was, “How would you like to be on the Parish council?”
She went to her husband for advice, and specifically asked him, “Do you get to say no to Jesus?” They both knew the answer to that question.
She couldn’t say no — this was the door God had opened.
So Kathleen joined the council, found an interpreter, went to the family in crisis and did what she could.
“It took me a year. But during that year, things started happening. The family’s needs were met and that’s what God does.
“So we started at St. Patrick’s with grant money to hire a social worker. The superintendent helped us find more money and we went from one school to eight.”
The organization now impacts the lives of more than 1,300 students.
The overall goal at Children’s First is to help students succeed in schools. Webb said privately-funded Catholic schools often don’t have the financing that public schools have.
Many low-income neighborhoods often struggle. Children’s First created programs to support some of the most important needs low-income families face.
“The Catholic schools couldn’t afford social workers,” Webb said. “So that’s where Children’s First started. We wrote the first grant to raise money to do that.”
Webb said these social workers are an important part of the children’s day. As they struggle with life situations they may not understand, the social workers provide emotional support.
Children’s First also partners with the Newman University School of Education and Social Work and has hired many Newman graduates.
“I learned about practicum social work students when we were starting this journey,” said Webb. “Newman was just starting their master level program when I began researching getting social workers into the schools. We’ve been very blessed to have a lot of great Newman graduates and students.”
They are currently in eight schools with social workers and practicum students and sometimes a case manager too.
Beyond the emotional services that social workers provide, Children’s First decided they also needed to take care of some of the physical needs that children of low-income families face.
Project Starfish was developed to help provide those material items.
Through this program, with the aid of grant money and generous donors, children are provided items such as coats, shoes, backpacks and supplies.
“Families can be fine, stable — but then something happens such as a job lost and the families find themselves in crisis,” said Webb.
Much of their funding is monetary, but they do have some physical items donated. Webb said whenever physical items are donated, they always ask for new items rather than used.
“These students are used to hand-me-downs,” she explained. “But you give them new shoes and a new uniform to wear that first day, all of the sudden, their spirits are lifted. When I first started, I felt a weight of poverty on these students’ shoulders. I just wanted to make a difference there.”
In July 2021, Children’s First had a back-to-school event and took donations. All of the items were then laid out on tables at St.Patrick parish. Families and children from the communities they served were able to come through and pick what they needed, which also gave them the opportunity to pick favorite colors and styles.
Teaching the children and families to become and stay self-sufficient is also an important part of what Children’s First does.
One way they do this is through their gardening program.
Webb said they have three education gardens and three teaching kitchens. And with the help of grant money, they were able to hire garden staff to help tend.
They offer fresh food programs to teach growing, harvesting, eating and preserving fresh food. And they have cooking classes in their teaching kitchens.
While the organization will continue to expand Project Starfish, Webb said educating the families is so important. Keeping the families in a sustainable economical home is key to independence.
“We have been able to help families with rent and utilities, but then months later, they are back for more help,” explained Webb.
“Now we are working on taking classes to teach the families to find their way out of that cycle. Staff are currently training to learn that skill and Children’s First will begin implementing and passing on that training to the families in need.
Making a difference
“People often ask how they can help,” said Webb.
She explained that while social workers help with the social and emotional needs, students need more.
“Sometimes there is a gap, so we need funds to help students either buy shoes or a coat, or maybe to get therapy they wouldn’t get any other way. So those individuals who are interested in learning more, they can do so online.”
Webb said she will continue to listen carefully to what God is leading her to do. She knows her calling is not over and God has much more in store for her future.
“I’m a person of faith. My prayer life changed about six years ago. I said, ‘I’m tired of saying what I want all the time and just asked Him what he wanted me to do?’ And this is what God made happen. I tell people I’m a surfer on God’s wave.”
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