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Planeview neighborhood volunteer has humbly helped feed thousands

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012, at 10:46 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, at 2:53 p.m.

Charlie Schwarz is a skinny guy with an angular face and jutting jaw.

He has a manner so quiet that people in the charity business overlooked him at first.

But they say he was important in arranging for hungry children and adults in the Planeview neighborhood to get free meals every day now.

And they say he overcame great odds to get medical care for thousands of poor people.

Schwarz says he didn’t do it alone.

A few months ago, people at the satellite City Hall in Planeview noticed a sixth-grade boy filling water bottles at the drinking fountain.

He filled bottles and walked out on summer days well past 100 degrees.

Janet Johnson, a Wichita City Hall neighborhood assistant, asked police to check the boy’s welfare. What they found at his home didn’t surprise her.

“Their water was turned off, and their electricity. He was walking the water home to his little brothers and sisters, including a 1-year-old,” Johnson said.

Planeview has many people who lack water and food. Some schoolchildren have ringworm that won’t heal.

Most Planeview students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches – 94 percent at Jardine Technology Middle Magnet, and 97 percent at Colvin Elementary. Some children come in on Mondays and wolf down breakfast because they’ve eaten little since Friday school lunch, even though the Kansas Food Bank gives backpacks of food to send home with the kids on Fridays. School officials suspect the families eat everything in the packs on Friday night, and starve for two more days.

For the Food Bank, school staff have identified about 65 students at Jardine and nearly 50 at Colvin who don’t get enough food at home on weekends.

“It’s a never-ending tide of heartbreak down here,” Johnson said. She found a family sleeping in their driveway one summer because the gravel felt cooler than the house.

Johnson collaborates with Lura Atherly, the principal at Jardine who last year helped rescue a child from sleeping in a car in winter cold. The boy’s homeless mother worked a night shift at Dillons and was scared to leave him alone at a shelter.

Widespread need

Planeview is 600 acres of poverty. Many dwellings were built in World War II as temporary housing. People today sometimes see electrical cords stretching from one building to another; when someone gets electricity shut off, a neighbor meets the need.

Median rent in Planeview, according to the 2010 federal census, is $524.

The 2010 federal census counted 4,383 residents in 1,305 households, one-third of them living on less than $15,000 annually. Twenty-two percent of the adults are unemployed.

Johnson, Atherly and others who try to help say it is unfair to call the poor of Planeview “takers.” Many of them are like Wendy Ratliffe, a mother of seven who works two jobs. In one of her jobs she works 35 hours a week with the Pre-K program at Colvin. “A lot of the parents are hard-working poor,” she said.

“Most of us aren’t slackers,” said Ratliff, who earns about $25,000 a year. “We pay our bills, but we struggle. We scrimp and save – and we eat a lot of soup.”

Of people in Planeview, 42 percent are under age 19; 34 percent are under 14.

Atherly feels despondent when she tries to get sports shoes for her Jardine volleyball team so they don’t have to play in street shoes. There are times when she and Johnson get mad when they find hungry children.

But then they talk to Charlie Schwarz.

A diner for Planeview

Wendy Glick remembers first meeting Schwarz when a group from Chapel Hill Fellowship United Methodist Church came to the Lord’s Diner in 2009 and asked her to establish a diner in Planeview. Schwarz was so quiet and blended in so well that Glick, who was executive director, had no idea he had volunteered at the diner downtown for eight years. “I barely noticed him,” she said.

But in meeting after meeting after that, she watched him overcome obstacles to help Glick and the Catholic Diocese establish a Lord’s Diner in Planeview that gives out 250 meals a day, seven days a week, many to children.

He did it at first in spite of Glick’s resistance. The Chapel Hill Fellowship people came to her just after northeast Wichita residents rejected a proposal to establish a satellite Lord’s Diner there. Glick was exhausted. “She looked so upset I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d resigned,” Schwarz said.

But over the next few days, Schwarz and Pastor Jeff Gannon from Chapel Hill Fellowship talked her into partnering with them as they led hundreds of congregation members into Planeview to help that area. Glick had told them that she felt like she had an army in front of her, opposing her attempt to help feed hungry people in northeast Wichita. “She told us she wanted an army behind her this time,” Schwarz said. He and Chapel Hill Fellowship complied, talking to people in the neighborhood to build support, making calls to find information.

Today, the satellite diner in Planeview feeds about 225 people a day, 30 to 40 percent of them children, said Jan Haberly, who replaced Glick as Lord’s Diner director. Kids who used to go hungry all weekend have a place to eat now.

“When they came to see me, I thought Charlie was this guy who sat in the back of the room,” Glick said later.

But, she said, “I began to realize it was Charlie who had the blueprints in his hands.”

Apprentices of Jesus

Before that happened, on Nov. 29, 2009, Gannon had stood before his Chapel Hill Fellowship congregation and given a sermon he knew not everyone would understand. Gannon modeled his talk on Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech.

“I have a dream that one day this congregation called Chapel Hill will rise up more fully than ever before and live out the true meaning of its mission,” Gannon said. “That Chapel Hill will welcome all people to experience and share the extraordinary grace and love of Jesus Christ.”

Gannon and some congregation members had trained with the Kansas Leadership Center, a nonprofit organization that trains congregations how to transform communities. Gannon told church members he wanted them to be “apprentices” of Jesus, not just “admirers.” Jesus had put his hands on poor people, fed, healed and comforted them.

“When you study the New Testament you see all these references to the poor,” Gannon said later. “It wasn’t that Jesus thought the poor were better. He just doesn’t want us to forget them.”

Gannon’s church sits near 13th Street and K-96, in well-to-do east Wichita. His congregation is mostly white and affluent. Average household income: $85,000. Some have houses worth $350,000 to $400,000.

He wanted to take them outside their comfort levels. Ben Leader, a congregation member who had done charity work, suggested where to go.

“One of the valleys of our city to which we have been called by God is Planeview,” Gannon told them.

Among people who came along was a laid-off accountant named Charlie Schwarz.

Building a clinic

Susie Schwartz runs the Hunter Health Clinic, which offers free or reduced-cost medical care.

Three years ago she obtained a $300,000 federal grant, but she had no way to stretch it to $650,000 for a new clinic she wanted to build in Planeview. Thousands of people were not getting care. The clinic’s satellite location was one room in a church building.

She thought she might lose the grant. But one day the Chapel Hill Fellowship people showed up, including a thin guy with white hair.

Charlie Schwarz didn’t talk much.

The odds of finding another $350,000 looked steep.

Charlie Schwarz said he would see what he could do.

To help Hunter Health, Schwarz knocked on doors.

“I got discouraged,” he said. “I went to one foundation, and they just slammed the door. I did a lot of praying. I wondered at times, what path do I go down now? Did I bite too big a bullet? How many people will I let down?”

He went to a friend, architect Kerry Hunt. Hunt knew Schwarz had served on the Derby City Council and had learned nuts-and-bolts problem solving. He knew his humble nature was a manifestation of his faith.

Hunt invited Schwarz to his workplace: GLMV Architecture.

“Charlie’s quiet, but he’s a very inspiring guy,” Hunt said.

GLMV agreed to donate the architectural plans, work worth tens of thousands of dollars.

After that, Schwarz persuaded Professional Engineering Consultants to donate.

Then he went to Ben Hutton, president of Hutton Construction. One piece at a time, Schwarz built a list of donors willing to build a $650,000 clinic for $300,000.

“Charlie is very persistent,” Hutton said. “He figured out how it could be done, and was good at using his network of contacts.”

Hutton decided to build the clinic, at cost, and helped cut costs. Schwarz brought in retired construction workers donating time. Hutton found subcontractors willing to help.

“Subcontractors are hurting as bad as anybody in Wichita,” Schwarz said.

But they built that clinic.

In October alone, the clinic saw 1,431 patients, 328 of them children.

Church’s offerings

Chapel Hill Fellowship helped hundreds of Planeview children and adults in the last three years, giving money and time.

Church members formed the Planeview Transformation Coalition, coordinating help with Planeview residents, City Hall, and school leaders like Atherly, the Jardine principal. When Planeview residents asked whether this was a feel-good flash in the pan, Gannon answered that his church was committed for 10 years.

Gannon said 150 members got involved actively. They established a sister relationship with a Planeview Church, Brookside, and handed over $30,000 to keep an associate pastor at Brookside.

“People from Chapel Hill gave us bags and bags of school supplies,” said Atherly. “Chapel Hill easily gave school supplies to 40 to 50 children: composition notebooks, paper, markers, pencils, calculators, crayons. Brand new clothes, or gently used. They volunteer in the classroom.

“If we have a need and mention it, we get what we need.”

The man who helped

Schwarz still isn’t employed full-time. Every time he applies at an accounting job, 30 to 35 others apply.

Janet Johnson, Glick and others say it is ironic that a man who did so much for the poor is unemployed.

Hunt can’t understand this but said perhaps there’s a higher plan. “Maybe this is where he is supposed to be right now: helping people,” Hunt said.

In October, Johnson, the neighborhood assistant, helped with a clean-up. Some people in Wichita think so little of Planeview that they dump old sofas, refrigerators or broken TVs in the neighborhood’s ditches.

Among volunteers Johnson saw loading junk in the rain: Charlie Schwarz.

One day a month, at the Lord’s Diner he helped bring to Planeview, Schwarz ties on an apron and feeds poor people.

Contributing: Suzanne Perez Tobias of The Eagle

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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