Salvation Army workers put others' needs ahead of their own.
“This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
It’s Divine Sunday at The Salvation Army Bellefontaine Corps in Kansas City’s historic Northeast District. Children ages 3 through 12 from many races form a cultural melting pot inside the corps’ sanctuary.
They receive one day each year when the entire Sunday service and lunch program is their handiwork. On May 17, about 15 children stand proudly, singing and performing skits. In rehearsal, Kellie Fitzwater stands in front of them, dressed neatly in her Salvation Army white shirt and navy skirt. She beats her foot along, clapping in rhythm, encouraging the children.
Sunday services are Kellie’s unwinding time, “just letting it all sink in,” she says. Kellie and Rick Fitzwater call a house near the Fort Osage School District in Independence “home,” but they’ve built their lives around one of the metropolitan area’s roughest and poorest neighborhoods.
They’ve embraced with open arms what many in society would shy away from.
Kellie fell in love at age 14. She never looked back.
Near her house in Kansas City, a large, open field provided a space for community children to play baseball on summer days and nights. Kellie didn’t play but she loved watching, especially a young man named Rick Fitzwater.
“There was an instant attraction when I watched him play ball,” Kellie remembers.
He laughs. “That was many years ago.”
Both Rick and Kellie attended East High School in Kansas City, with Rick graduating in 1984 and Kellie graduating in 1985
Rick’s best friend lived two doors down from Kellie’s family. Because Rick had attended Catholic schools until high school, the couple actually lived several blocks away their whole lives but never met.
“Then, she stalked me, and we got married,” Rick says jokingly. “That’s where the stalking laws came from.”
The couple share a laugh.
They married June 6, 1986. She was 19, and he was 20.
“Mom wouldn’t let me until I finished my first year of college,” Kellie says in a hushed tone.
Today, Rick has worked at Salvation Army for seven years, “but my wife’s been there since William Booth,” he jokes, remembering the British Methodist preacher who founded Salvation Army in 1865.
“Twenty years. It’ll be 20 years in November.”
She gave birth to their first child, Brittany, in 1988. Kellie’s dream was to be a stay-at-home mother, but she grew weary after one year.
“I came to realize it was going to take the both of us to put a roof over our head,” she says.
Kellie’s mother had worked with Salvation Army and knew of an available job for her daughter. She applied and was hired at divisional headquarters, then located at 101 W. Linwood Blvd. in Kansas City.
Her first role was hardly glamorous: mailroom clerk. Though a few months in, she covered the receptionist position one day, and a Salvation Army officer called in.
The officer heard Kellie’s voice, its quiet and soothing elements combined, almost glamorous and romanticizing. Her superiors immediately wanted her hired as a receptionist.
“They said that my voice was a ministry in its own,” Kellie recalls. “At that time, I didn’t take it as much, but I hear it more and more. Even as I get older, I often times get told, ‘Why aren’t you on the radio?’”
She admits her embarrassment over the compliments, but she also felt good inside.
“Kellie, I know it’s not a high-end job, but you are the first person that people come in contact with when they’re in desperate needs of times,” her superiors explained. “It’s you with a compassionate soul and understanding. They hear your voice, and you give them comfort.”
Two decades later, she’s the community outreach director with The Salvation Army Bellefontaine Corps. Rick worked for about 20 years in the home medical industry, but when his normal work day ended, he immediately helped Kellie with Salvation Army volunteer duties.
Seven years ago, he learned that a position became available at the Truman Road and Troost Avenue Salvation Army warehouse. Rick had opted to skip college and started warehouse-related work immediately after high school, so he was already a seasoned veteran.
Kellie and Rick continue their work well after 5 p.m. and on weekends. In cooperation with Hallmark, Rick operates a prison-card ministry with donated greeting cards. Chaplains utilize the cards as encouragement for inmates’ involvement in Bible studies and church attendance.
During the winter holiday season, the prisoners are allowed to choose a donated toy for their children. Rick volunteers within the Kansas prison system, meeting one-on-one with inmates, showing catalogs filled with toys. They exchange stories about their children.
Kellie says she grew up in a family where she never had to want for anything. She struggles when people “do what they have to do to put food on the table.”
“Anything I can do to make it easier, I will do.”
Kellie responds to the economic recession’s effect on the Bellefontaine Corps. Among those seeking services are what some sociologists have coined “the new poor” – those once among the middle-class society who’ve recently lost jobs or their homes and now need a helping hand regularly.
Through their daily lunch program, Bellefontaine Corps used to feed 100 people. With the recession’s onset that number has doubled, Kellie says. The food pantry is drained because of greater needs and fewer donations.
It’s a calling, Rick says. After all, he left behind a better-paying job for what he considers a full-time ministry.
Kellie doesn’t work for the income. “The money’s not there,” she says bluntly. “You don’t go there to make money.
“I do it because I love my job, and I love what I do.”
First impressions of Rick Fitzwater might convey a timid, reserved personality, but his closest friends say he’ll open up. He seems OK sitting and visiting about his life, no outward visibility of an illness that is slowly and painfully deteriorating his health.
Rick was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1995. In the past year, neuropathy has taken its toll, his degenerated nerves the result of uncontrolled diabetes when he was first diagnosed, Kellie says. By choice, Rick then didn’t follow proper diets that doctors provided him.
At this point, Rick’s internal doctor would like him on a spinal morphine pump for his pain management, a pain so strong and debilitating that by the afternoon, he must remove his shoes and socks. The feel of them against his skin, a feeling that most take for granted and leave unnoticed, is torture.
A trial surgery took place Wednesday at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Blue Springs. If successful, a permanent morphine pump will be inserted soon through an operation at St. Joseph Hospital in Kansas City.
Is Rick dying?
“Um, I don’t like saying that,” Kellie says, “but the last female doctor we had gave him two years to live, but we refused. We switched doctors, but he knows in his heart that within a year he probably will not be walking.”
The pump comes with a cost that’s more than monetary.
“When he does that, he will have to resign,” Kellie says. “He’s not ready for that.”
He usually gets very secluded, Kellie says in a hushed voice, almost a whisper. In a silent state, he’ll retreat to the back of their home.
The Fitzwaters struggle financially with mortgage payments and basic necessities like utilities and groceries. Diabetic medications are expensive.
“We fight every month, check to check,” Kellie says, “but I will not let him go without his medications.”
Her eyes fill with tears and her lips quiver as she speaks of her high-school sweetheart, the love of her life.
“I get real emotional,” she says.
Their youngest daughter, 14-year-old Morgan, is Rick’s little nurse. She fixes her father’s syringes and prepares his medications at bedtime. Her sister, Brittany, still lives at home even though she is married and has a 2-year-old daughter. At 20, she knows what’s happening and wants to help, Kellie says.
“I’m more scared for his children, especially our youngest daughter, because they are very, very close,” Kellie says, fighting the emotions, choking back the rising lump in her throat. “We don’t talk a lot about it; she knows what her dad is going through.”
Hide it under a bushel? No. I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
The Prospect Avenue exit off of east Interstate 70 in Kansas City opens into one of the city’s roughest and poorest neighborhoods. Turning onto East Ninth Street, graffiti tags line several buildings and a black trash bag spills from a driveway into the street – it’s still there for days on end.
Homeless people, alcoholics, drug addicts and gang members seek basic human needs at 3013 E. Ninth St. Angel Clark, 38, attends the daily lunch program about three times each week. Unemployed, Clark says she recovering from a drinking problem, and she talks nonstop for 10 minutes about Kellie.
“Kellie, she’s a really good person once you get to know her. It’s not favoritism with her or anything. You be real with her, and she’ll be real with you,” says Clark, describing Kellie as “a sister and mother mixed together.”
“She’s a happy person,” Kellie says, describing Clark.
“That’s right,” Clark replies. “Even when I’m down, I’m happy. I do not know any strangers. If you’re a stranger, I’m going to get to know you.”
Kellie’s experiences with people like Clark could fill a book. She isn’t even sure where to begin.
But there was an incident that does stand apart from others.
In 1993, a man off the streets came in at 36th and Broadway. He had just been released from jail. The man’s mother had just died, and he needed clothes to attend her funeral.
During her lunch break, Kellie took the man to a local Salvation Army thrift store. He selected a clean pair of slacks, dress shirt, tie and shoes. On the way back, he told Kellie how hungry he was. The Salvation Army fed him and sent him on his way.
Kellie never saw or heard from the man again, though she frequently thinks of him.
“I couldn’t imagine not having something to wear to my parents’ funeral. And, I can understand coming out of prison, you don’t have anything,” Kellie says.
Envoy Dale Simmons, the Bellefontaine Corps officer and pastor, has known the Fitzwaters since 1997. Kellie’s enthusiasm and energy wears him out, he says, as she breathes life into what could be conceived as a depressing place.
Once, several children were fighting in a gang-related situation. Threats were made, and church members became frightened.
Kellie walked into the rough neighborhood, knocked on children’s front door and approached the family members in resolving the issue. She wanted the problem halted.
“I don’t think it was the smartest thing because it’s not a safe neighborhood, but that really didn’t matter to her,” Simmons says.
She’s found herself amid gang fights. A couple of months ago, Kellie found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A gun was pointed at her, though the reality sank in much later.
“At that moment, it didn’t hit me until later. It scared me, but was I ever scared to come back? No, I’m not scared to walk in this neighborhood. God has me here for a reason, and I can’t fear.”
Her resiliency is hereditary, a trait of her mother who worked in East High School’s detention center.
“She was a tough woman,” Simmons says, throwing his head back and laughing, placing plenty of emphasis on “tough.”
Kellie buried both of her parents – her role models – within 24 months of each other. Her father, diagnosed with a brain tumor at 63, had surgery two weeks after his diagnosis and never woke up.
Then, her mother gave up. Bed-ridden, she never recovered and died of a broken heart at 64, Kellie says.
Though a broken heart killed her, Simmons re-emphasizes Kellie’s mother and her toughness.
“Leave my mom alone,” Kellie says, laughing with her boss.
Don’t let Satan blow it out. I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
“Did I tell you about the time I gave my brother my kidney?” Kellie asks in a casual tone during a Wednesday afternoon lunch program.
Kellie’s brother Bryan had experienced kidney problems since age 26. That was the first time Kellie offered a kidney, though the disease escalated in August 2006.
“I wasn’t going to ask her. When I got put on a transplant list, she said, ‘What can I do?’” says Bryan, now 43. “And I said, I’m not going to tell her what to do.”
Bryan searches for words good enough in explaining his sister’s action. And in searching for other good deeds that Kellie’s performed, “It’s hard to beat that one,” Bryan says of the transplant.
“It’s a do or die. I didn’t ask; she just told me,” he says. “Of course, you’re always happy – it just changes everything. I do believe she’ll have a special place upstairs when it’s time, for being willing to do that for another human being. She’s well-loved.”
Kellie, always considering herself an equal among others, sometimes brings the church’s children home to Independence. Her heart breaks for individuals she serves, always wanting more, more and even more. She relishes in the children’s innocence, always seeking the best traits in everyone.
Find the good spot in your lives, she tells the children.
A day’s ending brings peaceful, reflective moments separate of work and other adult responsibilities. Kellie Fitzwater is left thinking, “When is it going to stop?”
“If it isn’t one thing, it’s another,” Kellie says softly, “but we will battle each battle as they come.”
The Book of Psalms provides comfort, especially with Rick’s illness and the trials the couple has faced. Her favorite verse, though, lies within the Book of Matthew:
“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’”
“There’s none precious as children – the innocence of a child,” Kellie whispers.
The Fitzwaters grew up in inner city Kansas City. They call Eastern Jackson County home now, but they never want to forget their upbringing.
“We want people to know it’s choices that you make in life – that’s where you’ll end up,” Kellie says.
As the children finished their program Sunday morning, Simmons stands before the congregation, and he recognizes Kellie.
“You just don’t know how much she wants everyone to be saved,” he says in concluding the service. “She will go to the limits to make that happen.”
An hour before the service begins, Kellie responds to whether she’s happy with her life.
“I am. I’m very happy, and I like to share that and spread that because it is contagious,” she says. “Life’s too short.”
She’s going to let it shine.