The Nicest Place in Kansas: Olathe

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"Listening Is Love"

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Listening is the first step to healing trauma, and the people of Olathe are all ears.

For Neelam Singhal, the healing moment comes when she’s just delivered a birthday cake to a kid who really needs it.

“When I do this, I don’t think about the pandemic,” says the volunteer and mother of one who immigrated from India and teaches chemistry at Rockhurst University. “I just feel really good.”

The source of that feeling is KidsTLC, a nonprofit in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe where Singhal began volunteering when the pandemic hit. KidsTLC cares for kids dealing with trauma. About 75 kids live on the KidsTLC campus at any given time, many from the foster care system who don’t get regular visits from family.

drone shot of KidsTLC campusGeereD Up Films, LLC/Courtesy Tracy Mattis/KidsTLC
KidTLC has been serving the community for almost 50 years.

The past six months have exposed Americans anew to the toll that trauma takes on individuals and whole communities. And Elizabeth Hall, director of campus and community engagement for KidsTLC, believes America has much to learn from the resilience of kids like those at KidsTLC. The first step to healing the wounds of trauma is to set aside judgments and simply listen, whether you’re faced with a child, a neighbor, a colleague or a friend, whether the trauma arises from racial incidents, losing a job, or losing a loved one to COVID-19.

“Everybody wants to be heard,” Hall says. “Everyone has something going on. Trauma comes in all different forms.”

KidsTLC is a fixture in Olathe (pronounced “oh-LAY-tha”), founded in 1972 as an emergency shelter for abused and neglected children. Its trained staff provide carefully structured therapeutic care, but community volunteers like Singhal are the children’s gateway to the world beyond, sharing conversation and play, and helping them relax and trust.

For many of the young residents, the past is full of abuse and neglect, and the forced isolation of the pandemic shutdown has only made their recovery harder. “They’ve had so many walls they’ve put up. Especially the boys—they might be teddy bears inside, but they’ll never show it,” says Hall. “They grow up too fast, and their true self doesn’t get to come out, unless you really start cracking on that shell.”

“They’re working really hard to improve their lives,” says Tracy Mattis, KidsTLC’s director of marketing. “They’re hurt. They’re sad. We’re trying to make them whole again.”

Last year, KidsTLC hosted exactly 1,664 volunteers from Olathe and beyond who gave over 11,000 hours to cracking those shells. Even with the pandemic, the community has kept the help coming. Singhal came to KidsTLC soon after the pandemic began. COVID had disrupted her work teaching, and scotched any possibility of traveling abroad to see family. She needed something to keep her feeling positive. Her work at KidsTLC has brought peace and satisfaction at a disrupted time.

woman in KidsTLC shirt with a girl on a benchCourtesy Tracy Mattis/KidsTLC
Staff and volunteers alike show these children the love and compassion they deserve.

Giving is a way of life in Olathe. Singhal also volunteers with a literacy program called Reach Out and Read. School nurses volunteer as “contact tracers.” Kansas City’s Youth Volunteer Corps sends teams of young people to needy spots in the city.

“Our community believes in the future,” says Hall. “When COVID came, they said, ‘How can we help?’ It was amazing.” Volunteers at KidsTLC have helped organize socially-distant activities, including birthday parties featuring personalized cakes and gifts. “We have to work together, and we have to stay apart,” Singhal says. “It’s hard! We’re all learning.”

Even the smallest acts of kindness can make a world of difference, goes the Olathe way of thinking. Hall recalls one resident who eventually went to college and stunned herself by winning a campus election. The seed of her success was planted by one of those thousands of KidsTLC volunteers, a business leader who shared his own experience one day.

“His advice was, ‘Step out of your comfort zone. Try something that challenges you. You might get a no, but still try it,’” says Hall. “That stuck with her, and when she saw the chance, she took it, and she won!”

Singhal believes supporting KidsTLC has helped her son, too. He’s only eight, she says, but by watching her and her Olathe neighbors help one another, he’s learning what matters most: that we’re all equal in God’s eyes, no matter our age, race, culture, or personal situation.

“Don’t make it complicated,” Singhal says. “Just think of us as one. God is one, and we are one. And God is watching us.”

The Nomination

Neelam SinghalCourtesy Manuj Singhal
Everyone deserves a birthday celebration.

During COVID when any crowd is ignored by all, there are Orphans too whose birthdays are not getting celebrated or they are not getting any gifts from their well wishers. At this hard time, my wife (Neelam Singhal) collected birthday boxes, gifts and birthday crowns and started calling various organizations who could accept it. She was able to connect with Kids TLC and she drove there to donate. She felt so happy doing something for them that she almost cried when she returned. I am lucky to have such a kind-hearted better half.

We are following the situation closely and trying to be home as much as possible. Neelam had to even leave her job to be safe and take care of me and our kid at home.

Our community is really nice with a lot of kind-hearted around, who I have seen helping each other at times.

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