Kim Davis came home one day last spring to find three neighborhood kids sitting on the front steps of her home in the Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis.
She didn't know them. They got up to scatter, and she told them, "You don't have to go anywhere." After a few minutes of conversation, the youngest asked for a nickel. The kids didn't have much food in the house, and they wanted something to eat. An older sibling chimed in, and asked if there was anything they could do to earn a little bit of money.
As she listened to them, "my heart is melting," Davis recalled. "The whole time, my mind is running — I'm thinking about what I have in the house, anything and everything that I can give them so they're no longer hungry."
Looking back, Davis realized those kids — whom she never saw around the neighborhood again — were a call from the Holy Spirit to do something more in her community. In August, she and others brought snacks, homegrown produce and stacks of books to a back-to-school backpack giveaway sponsored by the Ville Collaborative in the parking lot of her parish, St. Matthew.
Davis shared her ideas with Steve Hutchison of Revitalization 2000, an organization in the Ville that owns Claver House, which houses a resident volunteer community near St. Matthew. In November, Davis and others at Claver House started Project Read and Feed, to welcome neighborhood children for a bite to eat and fun activities to stimulate their minds.
Twice a month on Saturday mornings, Claver House is filled with the smell of fresh pancakes and sausage. Two rooms are set up as mini-libraries, with comfortable seating and books attractively displayed along the shelves of the built-in bookcases. Other rooms include a maker space with stations for building Legos and magnetic tiles and other STEM-related activities; and two aviation simulation stations, run by Stephen Belt, an assistant professor of aviation science at Parks College at St. Louis University.
Davis' mission is to make sure families in the neighborhood know their children have a place to go, where they can fill their bellies and minds and connect with others. Sometimes the children — including the three she met that spring day — are left to fend for themselves at home while their parents are working, she said.
"When I was growing up here in the '60s and '70s, everyone knew everyone else. It was a true community" said Davis, a mother of four and grandmother of four. "And if we were without, there would have been friends and family members my mom or dad could have called. In this neighborhood ... they're really working hard to maintain what they have. Hopefully this will give them a place to come."
A few kids trickled into Claver House on a recent morning. Davis headed out to see if she could round up a few more, and returned with Da'Quan Doss and his cousin Jamya Creswell. They headed straight to the kitchen, where Steve Hutchison was making pancakes.
"Are you ready to eat? Come on in, sweetie," said Lillian Summers, a St. Matthew parishioner and volunteer who was arranging crates of donated books.
Jamya, 6, was wide-eyed as Hutchison flipped pancakes on the griddle.
"I've never made pancakes before," she told him.
"You haven't? Well today you're going to learn," he said.
In the next room, Da'Quan, 11, helped Jack McLinden, a Jesuit scholastic, build a computer kit. Hutchison said he'd like to see more professionals come and teach the kids about their industry. "We need to stretch their horizons and see beyond what they see here every day," he said.
Researching her community, Davis discovered that less than 25 percent of residents in the Ville have a high school education. During her childhood, Homer G. Phillips Hospital was an anchor in the community, a place where African Americans came to live and learned to become medical professionals.
Today, the building serves as a residence for seniors, and the resources for families has shifted. Outside of the schools (among them, Farragut and La Salle Middle School), the closest library is about a 20 minutes walking distance, Davis noted. Through Project Read and Feed, she is determined to grow a new anchor that supports family-friendly values.
"I told the volunteers, we want to be aunties and uncles to all of these children if we can," Davis said. "When we were growing up, that's how we referenced our older neighbors. To have some of that in the community again would be so grand."
>> How to help
Cash donations are sought to support Project Read and Feed. Currently, the effort takes place twice monthly, but organizers would like to expand to every week. Volunteers also are sought as mentors or to share their professional expertise with children. For more information, email Steve Hutchison at firstname.lastname@example.org.