(originally published 2/28/19)
In 1869, the completion of the Hannibal Bridge connected Kansas City to the nation’s expanding rail system. The rail brought so much to Kansas City. In general, it brought much prosperity to the town, and for a select few, it brought untold wealth. For far too many, it brought privations of every sort – broken families, unwed mothers, neglected elderly and countless others simply toiling through poverty. No public agencies were there to offer assistance, leaving only the houses of worship to care for the needy.
In 1870, twenty women –wives of some of Kansas City’s most prominent businessmen – formed the Women’s Christian Association. WCA’s mission was “to relieve the needy and distressed in this new and struggling city.” The ladies set off in pairs and scoured the city to learn firsthand the nature and extent of the need. They saw the squalor and desperation and were particularly moved by the plight of young women. Through the WCA, they purchased a home at 11th & McGee and opened the Working Women’s Home to care for “widows [and] young girls in destitute or distressed circumstances.”
The WCA soon realized that women in distress often came with children in distress. The WCA was increasingly asked to care for foundlings and babies from families that could not afford proper care. So the home for working women was expanded to serve children, and when the expanded mission taxed the capacity of their first house, they rented another. The WCA continued to adapt to the rapid pace of change and growing need. By 1882, the WCA had expanded four times, most recently to 21st & Tracy, where separate care could be provided to infants and babies. Meeting the children’s needs so came to dominate their work that the program for women was dropped, and all focus was placed on serving children. But again, that focus was changed when an entirely new opportunity was dropped in the laps of the ladies of the WCA, an opportunity they could scarcely afford to turn down.
Margaret Klock Armour, a member of the WCA and the widow of one of the founders of the Armour Meat Packing Company, offered the group the amazing sum of $25,000 to establish a home for aged couples, with an additional $5,000 pledge to support a new home for the children. The $30,000 offer is equivalent to at least $750,000 today. The sum is even more significant when compared to the estimated cost of the entire project, about $33,000. The new facilities were built on land donated by Colonel Thomas Swope. The home for aged couples was christened the Margaret Klock Armour Memorial Home for Aged Couples, but it soon became known as the “Armour Home.” The other building was called simply the “Children’s Home,” but that would soon change, thanks to another WCA member, Mary Gillis Troost. Mrs. Troost, the widow of Dr. Benoist Troost and the niece of William Gillis, a founding father of Kansas City. The bequest was designated for the maintenance and operation of the children’s home, which Mrs. Troost stipulated be called the Gillis Home for Children.
Through the 1910s and ’20s, the Gillis Home and its sister, the Armour Home, enjoyed widespread support within the Kansas City community and was fairly earning a reputation as a program that made a difference. That reputation was built on the personal involvement of the WCA members, each responsible for spending a set number of days working with the children at the home. The ladies never shied from approaching civic organizations, churches and businesses for donations of any kind. But despite their efforts, by 1924, the buildings were filled to capacity. Just as they were struggling with their next direction, an opportunity presented itself that must have seemed providential.
In 1926, the Western Negro College approached the WCA about buying their campus on Tracy. The $25,000 the college paid allowed the WCA to purchase twenty-six-and-a-half acres “way out in the country” 81st & and Wornall Road, in today’s Waldo. The Gillis Home and the Armour Home would share the property in separate facilities. The architectural firm of Keene and Simpson designed the buildings with the residents in mind, especially critical when serving the children’s needs. Every necessity was considered, including play and study rooms for the children and a small hospital for the elderly. In the end, the total cost for the property and new buildings reached more than $570,000, more than twenty times what the WCA had received for the old property. Most of the gap was filled through the philanthropy of the Loose family, and in tribute, the Loose name was added to the administration building’s façade. The campus opened in September 1929.
The physical stability of the homes had been established, but the times were anything but stable. A month after the opening, the stock market crashed. Everywhere, there was great need, but no money. In 1934, the Armour Home processed 730 applications, at a time when the average number of residents at the home was 84. It was tough to place children for adoption, but easier by far to place infants, and so during this period, the Gillis Home only served older children. World War II added more pressures. The Gillis Home and many others like it across the country took in foreign refugee children. Now, even fewer resources were available, gobbled up as they were by the war effort. Institutional rations were even more scrutinized than household rations. In fact, the whole notion of institutional care was called into question. The practice of caring for children was evolving. Institutions seemed cold and impersonal. Alternative programs were being tried and favored
After the war, the relationship between the Gillis and Armour Homes and the Waldo community began to flourish. The Armour Home served residents whose families lived nearby. The Gillis Home had developed seventy years of deep connections to the greater Kansas City community. That goodwill was important. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Gillis Home’s population shifted yet again, responding to a growing need for programs for children with special requirements. The physically or mentally disabled, the emotionally distressed children, the children who had experienced violence—these were the children needing help. Again, the Gillis Home gave its energies to include those most in distress. While in many places, group homes faced challenges as they tried to fit in the surrounding neighborhoods, such was not the case in Waldo. The earliest records of the local business association make note of regular activities with Gillis. Support ranged from fundraisers by the local merchants to help in buying vans to transport the children, to the Brookside Mothers’ Association painting a mural in one of the cottages.
Through more than 140 years, the Gillis Home, now simply “Gillis,” has provided a home for those “most distressed,” as the founders once described them. Both the Armour and Gillis Homes have remained on the Waldo campus, expanding their facilities and programs. In 1997, Gillis formed an alliance with other similar caregiving agencies called Cornerstones of Care. As the industry for elder care changed, the Armour Home changed its name to Armour Oaks, built a new senior facility and converted the former space into Legacy House, an assisted living program. Most importantly, both organizations not only carry on their ties to Waldo, but also play an important role in ensuring that Waldo remains a community that embraces everyone, despite their age or need.
(Photo: Gillis Home’s Administration building, circa 1930. Courtesy the Gillis Home.)