Jayhawks Give Back

KC Jayhawk helps, houses the homeless
For Kar Woo, helping out where he could turned into a career of service, making a difference with those who need it most.
ALUMNI, HOMEPAGE NEWS, NEWS

For Kar Woo, helping out where he could turned into a career of service, making a difference with those who need it most.

 

Woo’s story began in Hong Kong, when he came to the U.S. on his 19th birthday with $50 in his pocket before attending the University of Kansas to study psychology. Woo, c’79, was working on a master’s in counseling when his parents immigrated to the U.S. In the Chinese tradition, he curtailed his studies and opened a gifts and home furnishings store in the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City to support them. 

 

Woo’s relationship with the Kansas City homeless population began with walking his dog in a park adjacent to The Plaza. What started as giving out sandwiches in the park turned to handing out donated coats, gloves, blankets and food from his store. As he got to know the homeless people who would drop in, he found he could help them with relatively simple acts like a ride or phone call. Artists Helping the Homeless, Inc. (AHH) was founded in 2008 to fund the meal program and other acts of service.

Around that time, nearby Saint Luke’s Hospital called a meeting of local emergency and homeless agencies to address a growing need for support. When they asked their homeless patients who to invite, Woo’s name kept coming up. At the meeting, the Kansas City Missouri Police Department put a price tag of $5,390 on a typical homeless call. Woo was convinced he could save $1 million a year by filling a gap in the local safety net with transportation. When Saint Luke’s provided a grant to create a program, Woo put the store he created and ran for nearly 25 years on hiatus to launch the BE THE CHANGE Program in 2010. By 2014, Saint Luke’s attributed an annual savings of nearly $1.75 million to the program.

 

Over a decade later, Woo now laughs at the idea that Saint Luke’s gave an artist a blank slate and asked him to create something. “Create something? Sure, no problem,” he says of being naive about what he was getting into. AHH grew organically through a collaborative effort as hospitals (Saint Luke’s, North Kansas City), emergency services, homeless agencies and detox/recovery facilities worked to identify other gaps in the safety net.

 

A program that began as two vans and two drivers now annually assists about 2,000 people in local homeless populations. AHH operates recovery houses in Kansas City and Lawrence with another coming in Johnson County this winter. The recovery houses provide shelter and support for residents suffering from mental illness or substance abuse. “The objective of the residential program is for residents to get stable jobs, housing and not just survive, but thrive,” says Russ Townsley, a member of the AHH board of directors.

 

Our Jayhawks Give Back program, presented by Andrew Wymore, Realtor, celebrates ’Hawks who are making a difference in ways big and small. Each quarter, we’ll feature a member of the KU family and their story. If you know a Jayhawk who should be featured in Jayhawks Give Back, let us know!

Woo and others with Artists Helping the Homeless carrying on the way they started, with a Sunday meal in Mill Creek Park

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