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Mattie Rhodes: Young 'visionary' behind a century-old initiative to help women

Mattie Florence Rhodes
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Posted at 4:00 PM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 20:06:15-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As influential women throughout Kansas City’s history are remembered during Women’s History Month, young Mattie Rhodes cannot be forgotten.

For more than a century, her name has been affiliated with positive initiatives for working women and their children, but few know the story behind the young lady who started it all.

Mattie Florence Rhodes was around 15 years old when she rounded up about nine of her Sunday School friends from Central Presbyterian Church in Kansas City; calling themselves "The Little Gleaners."

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“That comes from a story in the Bible. After the harvest, there are leftovers in the fields and they would glean the fields of everything leftover,” Director of Development and Communications for the Mattie Rhodes Center, Angela Ceceña Brunner said. “They were hoping that whatever a family that was well off that had leftover - they would share with families in need.”

When Rhodes died in 1890 at the age of 19 from Typhoid Fever, she left her $500 inheritance to her group of church friends – asking them to “carry on the work.”

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“Kids have told me that seems like it would be a few thousand dollars or whatever and we’re like yeah!” said Cultural Arts Director, and the Mattie Rhodes Center’s longest-tenured employee of 24-years, Jenny Mendez, who has spent half her life at the center. “It’s a lot more money for a young person to have left when they passed away to be able to say, what can we do with this money or please take this money and continue the work that I want to be able to do.”

Proving no impact is too small and no age to start is too young, the Mattie Rhodes Center has been changing the lives of families in need across the metro for 127 years with that $500 kick start.

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“The first women who kind of took on this memorial society were women, the first president was a woman, and so they definitely saw that ambition and focus in these young girls and pushed it and allow it to grow and it turned into a huge, huge, thing,” Brunner added.

Mendez began working at the Mattie Rhodes Center as an intern, and said to see the name of a young fellow female from Kansas City have her name on the building was inspiring.

“A lot of times people just don’t know who Mattie Rhodes is, the person, and then who Mattie Rhodes the agency is and being able to even, 127 years later, to be able to still talk about that," she said.

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“Her legacy and her group of friends has helped hundreds of thousands of families over the course of the years,” Brunner said. “I think that’s probably the thing I teach my daughter, is that it doesn’t matter whether we’re giving away books to a family in need or we’re giving away the $5 we’ve earned cutting grass – all of it will go to help somebody in need.”

Mattie Rhodes is buried at Elmwood Cemetery in the Northeast.

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The Mattie Rhodes Memorial Society was founded in 1894 at 1734 Jefferson – where its first Day Nursery was built.

"I promise to do all I can to help the needy and suffering by working for them, learning about them, giving for them, and trying to interest others in the," was their pledge.

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“It was very unique for the time… it was specifically for working mothers, so they could be single mothers, they could be mothers that just needed to work outside of the home and they didn’t necessarily need to pay for the childcare,” Brunner explained. “There’s a story of a woman who would mop the floors as payment since she couldn’t afford to pay for her child to go there.”

With Mattie’s "how can we be there for working women" attitude, Rhodes is now considered a visionary, given her age and timely work at the turn of the 19th century.

“Women couldn’t even vote, and so to have this group of women come together and create this big society was really something special and I think that that truly is a testament to why it is still around today,” Brunner said. “Some of the early galas and balls that were held by the memorial society were some of the biggest in Kansas City society.”

It highlights the importance of what can happen when women empower other women.

“Women have that power, young women have that power to be able to make change and do change, learn about others, be accepting of others and have a voice,” Mendez said.

“Every little bit helps, it doesn’t have to be a huge or big inheritance that you’re giving away,” Brunner said referencing Mattie. “She started by selling potholders and brownies and so I think that can be inspiring to young kids who don’t know where to start but they know they want to help.”

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Brunner going through negatives from the 1890's with 41 Action News.

Mattie Rhodes Center Timeline (1871 to present)

Courtesy of Mattie Rhodes Center

1871 (July 1) – Mattie Florence Rhodes was born, the third child of John E. Rhodes and Catherine Dillman. She had an older sister named Jennie Dillman Rhodes, an older brother William Brooks Rhodes and a younger sister named Irma Rhodes.

1890 – The “Little Gleaners” are formed. The Little Gleaners is a small group of 10 young women from the Central Presbyterian Church, who volunteered to upkeep a bed at the Children’s Hospital on Broadway. To raise funds, they sold aprons and potholders. They also hosted lawn socials and bicycle teas.

1890 (Oct. 1) – Mattie Florence Rhodes dies of typhoid fever at age 19. She is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri. Mattie leaves $500 to the Little Gleaners.

1894 – The Little Gleaners founded the Mattie Rhodes Memorial Society under the leadership of A.G. Trumbull with Mattie’s $500, with 17 women signing the charter. The group consulted Jane Addams for advice on how to spend the funds they had collected. She suggested that they should use the funds to begin the first free kindergarten in Kansas City.

1896 (Feb. 26) – The first papers of incorporation were signed for the Memorial Society to be incorporated for 50 years with the purpose of “doing charitable work in and about Kansas City, and elsewhere, and especially maintaining the Mattie Rhodes mission, a home where the young children of working mothers may be cared for and provided for, instructed and entertained, during the hours of the day when such mothers are at work.”

1896 (January) – Mattie Rhodes Day Nursery (a day nursery and kindergarten) was opened at 1818 Woodland Ave.

1896 – After a few months, the Mattie Rhodes Day Nursery was moved to 1809 Forest Ave.

1896 (November) – The first annual ball, a fundraiser for Mattie Rhodes Center, was held.

1897 – Julia Marlowe, a famous Shakespearean actress, puts on a benefit performance that raised over $600.

1906 – The Mattie Rhodes Day Nursery was moved to 2340 Prospect (now Jarboe).

1916 – The Mattie Rhodes Day Nursery moved to 1734 Jefferson St. The Mattie Rhodes Memorial Society began to help community members find jobs, food and shelter, and began to closely parallel social welfare programs.

1918 – Saint Luke’s Hospital helped to establish a medical clinic for the children in the Mattie Rhodes Day Nursery and kindergarten.

1923 – The kindergarten/day nursery closed due to changes in the public school system and became a neighborhood center. The new name became Mattie Rhodes Neighborhood Center. The center began receiving funds from Community Chest (known today as the United Way) during this time.

1927 – The agency opened a new playground at the Mattie Rhodes Neighborhood Center.

1930s – During the Great Depression, Mattie Rhodes Memorial Society provided shelter and basic necessities to those facing hardship by operating a settlement house for children, single mothers, homeless individuals and the elderly.

1950s – Based on a community needs assessment, Mattie Rhodes hired a professional counseling staff to better meet the needs of a changing community. The center focused on four groups for programming: pre-school, children ages 7-13, teenagers and senior citizens. Mattie Rhodes Memorial Society’s primary purpose was counseling; however, activities such as crafts, cooking, dancing and games were common as well.

1966 – Construction of a new building at 1740 Jefferson (next door) was completed and operations moved to this building.

1980s – In response to the growing Latino population in the Westside neighborhood, Mattie Rhodes began to offer programs in Spanish and English, hiring bilingual therapists and case managers.

1986 (March 12) – At the urging of the United Way, Mattie Rhodes Memorial Society merged with the Craft Learning Center, Inc. The center then changed its name to Mattie Rhodes Counseling and Art Center. Mattie Rhodes Art Center is established at 915 W. 17th Street.

1999 –Mattie Rhodes Counseling and Art Center needs additional space to display works of art made at the Art Center and by aspiring guest artists. The Mattie Rhodes Art Gallery is established next door to the Art Center at 919 W. 17th Street.

2003 (June) – The agency publishes a comprehensive research document, “Cultural Competency and Mental Health in the Hispanic Community of Jackson County, Missouri.”

2005 – The agency purchases a permanent facility in the Northeast neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri at 148 N. Topping Ave.

2005 – MRC is certified for Outpatient Mental Health services through Missouri’s Department of Mental Health.

2006 – MRC moves into Kansas, providing therapeutic services in partnership with El Centro.

2007 (Spring) – The Hand-in-Hand Folk Art Collection is formally gifted to Mattie Rhodes Center.

2007 – The agency is certified by Missouri’s Department of Mental Health, Division of Drug and Alcohol Abuse for Outpatient Supported Recovery and Targeted Prevention.

2008 (May) – The agency publishes another research report, “Closing the Mental Health Gap: Eliminating Disparities in Treatment for Latinos.”

2009 (November) – The Brightening Lives, Building Futures Luncheon celebrates the agency’s 115th anniversary.

2011 – MRC opens a new community garden, “Jardin Jubilo” (Jubilee Garden) as part of its Health and Wellness Program. Located in the Historic Northeast, the garden is just a few doors down from its 148 N.Topping office.

2014 – Mattie Rhodes Center celebrates 120 years of service to the Kansas City community.

2016 – MRC opens La Clinica in the Northeast office, an after-hours clinic that aims to serve bilingual participants who face multiple barriers to traditional medical care.

2018 – MRC celebrates the campaign to build the new Mattie Rhodes Cultural Center in the Westside neighborhood with a ceremonial groundbreaking during the annual Dia de los Muertos festivities.

2019 (August) – Mattie Rhodes Center marks the end of an era with the closing of the 1740 Jefferson Office in the Westside Neighborhood.

2020 (August) – Mattie Rhodes Center breaks ground on a new net-zero affordable, single-family home in the Historic Northeast.

2021 (January) – Construction begins on the new Mattie Rhodes Cultural Center located at 17th and Jarboe streets in Kansas City’s Historic Westside neighborhood.