Politics & Government

Brownback encourages volunteerism by example

TOPEKA — Sam Brownback and members of his family regularly do volunteer work at the Topeka Rescue Mission, but with Brownback about to take office as Kansas' next governor, a couple of hours there with family and staff members became an opportunity to promote volunteerism.

Brownback, who added an hour of bell-ringing outside a grocery store for the Salvation Army to his schedule Friday, used a couple of hours of work Thursday at the rescue mission to launch his Heart of Kansas Project, encouraging volunteerism. At the homeless shelter, he was joined by family and more than a dozen members of his transition team.

He's tied the Heart of Kansas Project to his Jan. 10 swearing-in by making charity work in three Kansas communities part of his inaugural festivities. But he and his family have served meals at the Rescue Mission in the past.

"It's a great cause," Brownback said. "We try to do it as a family."

Events associated with Brownback's inauguration begin Jan. 5 with a blood drive in Hays, followed by a medical supplies repackaging event Jan. 6 at a community health center in Pittsburg and the stuffing of backpacks with food for needy children Jan. 7 in Wichita.

A traditional inaugural dinner and ball are scheduled for Jan. 8 in Topeka. Brownback has said he wanted to turn those events, financed with ticket sales and private contributions, into a fundraiser for charity, only to discover that state law prevents it. State law requires leftover funds to go to the state to defray costs associated with the swearing-in of the governor and other statewide elected officials, then to upkeep for Cedar Crest, the governor's residence.

"That's not where we need the money," he said during a recent interview, adding that he'll ask legislators to change the law. "We need it here at the Rescue Mission."

At the homeless shelter, Brownback sorted canned goods with his wife, Mary, and two of his children, Abby and Mark. Others in his group processed donations and assembled care packages alongside volunteers helping about 50 homeless children pick out holiday gifts for family members.

"There are lots of Kansans who want to volunteer," said Lt. Gov.-elect Jeff Colyer, a plastic surgeon who's been active in a private relief organization, the International Medical Corps. "It's part of the fabric of Kansas."

And the Topeka Rescue Mission can use the help.

Normally the shelter averages 190 residents each night around Christmas, said executive director Barry Feaker. One night last week, it had 269 guests — its highest level of demand since the mission opened in the early 1950s — and 56 children are staying there.

People sleep on cots in the mission's library, day room, hallways and elsewhere. The overnight population has expanded during the past two years as economic stagnation hurt families in the area, Feaker said.

"Most of the people we encounter don't have the means to do extra," Feaker said. "If they went out and bought a gift with their income it might mean they wouldn't be able to purchase necessary food, pay the rent or the utility bill."