Through five decades, ECKAN supplies compassion

Editor’s note: East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corporation is celebrating its 50th year with events in the communities it serves. A celebration including lunch, carnival games, crafts, juggler, and magician will be held 11 a.m.-1 p.m. May 21 at the livestock pavilion at the Osage County fairgrounds, Osage City. The public is invited.

By Amelia Arvesen, The Ottawa Herald

Kenna Burns two decades ago stood on the other side of the desk as the helped, not yet the helper.

As a young wife and mother, she found herself at East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corporation asking for food stamps, medical cards, childcare, at one point rent money, education and other services to be self sufficient.

“There comes a time when you have to realize you’re going to do what’s best for your family and that was the point I was at,” Kenna Burns said. “I see that … today when I have people come into the office and they’re crying and they’re like, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my kids.’”

Admitting she and her husband, Ray Burns, were desperate for support was not easy, but she said they would not be where they are today without the agency better known as ECKAN.

“We are an ECKAN family,” she said.

At the agency celebrating a half century this year, Kenna Burns is now ECKAN’s Osage County community coordinator and Ray Burns is a housing inspector based out of the Ottawa headquarters, 1320 S. Ash St.

The Burnses, of Burlingame, are among 85 other staff members who serve people in the low-income bracket in Anderson, Coffey, Douglas, Franklin, Lyon, Miami, Morris, Osage and now Johnson counties. Services range from Community Food and Nutrition, FEMA, Head Start Program, Housing Choice Voucher Program, Housing Counseling and Rentals, Outreach and Referral, Community Volunteer Center and Weatherization Program.

“You can accomplish many things in life, but you can’t do it all yourself,” Richard Jackson, ECKAN chief executive, said at the 50th celebratory open house (May 6 at Ottawa).

Kenna Burns said she recalls very clearly what it’s like to ask for such basic needs, and along with that, to feel worthless, to feel helpless and to feel judged.

“When we had our daughter we were living in a trailer that we were wanting to own, we got used to being called names for living in a trailer and not having a lot of money,” Kenna Burns said. “But you do what you can.”

The couple married young, when Kenna Burns was a 17-year-old working as a part-time waitress and Ray Burns was working in construction. Three children – now 18, 15 and 13 – became mouths to feed, and minimum wage even full time was not always enough, she said, even though they were trying hard.

So in 2001, when their first child attended the Head Start Program, Ray Burns was finally convinced accepting help did not mean he was any less of a man.

“With seeing how good of a job they did with our children, and how caring there were, it just sold me on it,” Ray Burns said.

Tiffany, their first child, said she rode the school bus to the center in Carbondale, where she socialized, was taught to accept differences, and participated in family-style meals. Kenna Burns said extra services the family qualified for addressed her children’s different social disorders that teachers were able to work with.

Kenna and Ray Burns also said they found allies in their situation.

Through ECKAN, Kenna Burns became the first in her immediate family to graduate from college, finishing at Emporia State University cum laude. Ray Burns then earned his degree in human services a few years ago.

Giving up was not an option for Kenna Burns, she said, adding she and her husband are stubborn and strong willed. Times were tough, but never enough to call it quits, especially with ECKAN staff and volunteers believing in them.

Kenna and Ray Burns said in interacting with people today, they model those who aided them through their struggles. Kenna Burns said she is applying for $8,000 through Emporia Community Foundation to fund dental services for the second year in a row. Other community partnerships provide school supplies, food, other necessities and possibly job-skills training.

“My motto is that I have the power to help somebody else realize their dreams – and it may just be one person that you affect – but that makes it all worthwhile,” Kenna Burns said.

Whenever somebody living in poverty lacked words, Nona Johnson offered her voice.

Like the Burnses, the former Osage County Community Center coordinator can attest to being poor.

“If you haven’t been there, you don’t know,” Johnson said. “You think you do, but you can’t read that stuff out of books and expect to grab it because you can’t. You’ve got to experience something in your life that told you how it really felt.”

Starting in 1966, Johnson was one of the first navigating Osage County in her station wagon, and later in company vehicles, spreading the word about the new organization helping put poor people on their feet. After acquiring a big blue bus without seat belts, she drove children in the Head Start Program, the elderly to grocery stores and doctor’s appointments, and people who had never seen Kansas City.

People were wary even back then of seeking assistance, some of them prideful to accept any sort of welfare program, and did not know what services existed, she said. But she was insistent that being a backbone for others gave them the push they needed.

“If they’ve got somebody a little stronger than them, they’ll just go to town,” Johnson said.

During a home visit, she even became the guardian of a child who was living in unstable conditions – now 40 years old and living in Georgia.

And when funding was in jeopardy, she joined 400 others affiliated with ECKAN to fight at a show-cause meeting in 1973, according to one of her six scrapbooks documenting ECKAN through the decades.

Johnson’s children and grandchildren, such as Crystal Rodriguez, were shown what it meant to love unconditionally. Rodriguez said she might not have known the definitions of compassion and equality, but she knew what each looked like by observing her grandmother.

“She’d stand up for any of them, it didn’t matter they were all better or no worse than anybody else and that’s just how it was,” Rodriguez said.

Johnson retired in 2002, her position later filled by Kenna Burns, but could not stay away from her calling and returned as a volunteer. She said times have changed significantly, and people are more closed off, but regulations provide the most obstacles to services.

“I loved it, every minute of it, because the people you took, they were people who couldn’t get anywhere hardly,” Johnson said. “They were widows and just stuck in these little towns in Osage County and Franklin County out in the country. They couldn’t get anywhere … something had to be done.”

Now 83, Johnson still gets calls from people in her past – the first Head Start Program kids and their children.

“If they hadn’t have gone to knock on the doors, used their own cars, used their own phone numbers at home, it wouldn’t have happened,” Rodriguez said.

Amelia Arvesen is an Ottawa Herald staff writer. Email her at [email protected].

Original article published here by The Ottawa Herald. Reprinted with permission.


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