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Goodbye, Springfield.

So our summer of reporting from the Ozarks is over. We learned a lot. We heard a lot of amazing stories. And we’d like to say, one more time: Thanks, Springfield. You were great to us.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published September 13, 2012

Dear Springfield,

We’re already into the final weeks of another major election. Funny how fast these things move. A few months ago, when the Stry.us team first arrived in Springfield, it seemed political season was just ramping up. Now the conventions are over, and the debates are coming. All those big issues are about to come back on the table — the economy, immigration, gay marriage, abortion rights. We’re about to hear a lot about whether we’re all better off now than we were four years ago, and whether we’re going to be better off four years from now.

These are all issues that we’re all dealing with — all of us as Americans. And they’re issues that are affecting life here in Springfield, Mo.

But we know that you’ve got your own issues to deal with, too.

We know you’ve got more than a few blue ribbons and red flags that you’re proud of and concerned about, respectively. But what we find most remarkable is the fact that you’re not content with those alone. That despite all of the hours you spent putting together the listening tours and the strategic plan over the past several years, you continue to foster dialogue and want a stronger sense of what you can do better. There’s a reason you opened the doors of the library and let us borrow your cameras for the “Letters to Springfield” panel. There’s a reason there were people from all different walks of life who came and answered questions for an evening.

You know better than anyone looking in that there are some things that are going to be necessary for growth: You know how important young people can be for a place to prosper, and so you’ve funneled resources into initiatives such as The Network aimed at retaining the remarkable talents this place has produced. You know how important it is for young people who aren’t so lucky to have futures as well — to have people such as Russ Filbeck to admire as models, so that when life is at its worst, there are still lights in the dark.

We’ve seen some amazing people in this town. They’re your neighbors — from barbers like Adam Struble to extraordinary newsmen like Jerry Jacob to the ladies of the Springfield roller derby circuit. But they’re also the people working hard to make a difference right here in Springfield, from the world of improv comedy to the Medical Mile.

We’ve seen people with an incredible vision for this city, from the dreamers at Swagbot to Robert Crampton, 82 years old and still trying to leave a trail.

We’ve seen stories of the issues that resonate in the town square, from a vote over a smoking ban to an ordinance over gender rights. And then there are those fighting other battles: the Occupiers, still going strong; the teachers trying to reinvent their city’s school system; the nearby community trying to move on from the loss of a major factory.

The economy’s the biggest issue nationwide, and we’ve seen it here, too. We’ve heard stories about stores where locals can try to make ends meet, about local men trying to find their niche in the housing market, and about a local woman who’s held onto her job — just the one — for more than 52 years.

Then there are the stories that defy description: the murder of a man named Bo; Fast Eddie’s journey to Ozark; Phillip Wellman’s second chance.

And we can’t forget the stories we heard just down I-44 in Joplin, Mo., 59 weeks after the tornado.

We’re also grateful for what you taught us and the rest of the journalism community. You’ve given us wonderful opportunities to experiment.

You should know that there’s a reason we picked you for this news project. And the way that all of these different issues have clashed and colluded here over the course of the summer have reflected that we made the right choice. You should know that by living here, many of us have seen our preconceived notions about the Ozarks dashed about a million times over. You should know that we really and truly have loved living here.

You are doing some really great things, Springfield. It’ll be sad to see you passing into the rearview mirror. But we’ll see you again soon.

Sincerely yours,
The Stry.us team

This Pizza Restaurant Is Coming Soon. (This Time For Real!)

In February, two 20-somethings decided to open a pizza joint in downtown Springfield. They had the perfect pizza recipe. They had the perfect location. They had an experienced team behind them. And yet: They had no idea what kind of adventure they had just signed up for.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published September 10, 2012

Coming soon, the sign says, and everything feels like it’s just hours and days away. Soon — so full of optimism, of promise. It’s May, and there’s so much to celebrate. Jon Swisher, 24, and his girlfriend, Briana Mathews, 23, are coming up on their two-year anniversary. Jon has graduated from college. Briana is closing in on her degree. They feel ready to take on the world — together.

So together, they’ve decided to make the biggest leap of their lives. They have decided to open a pizza restaurant.

They find the perfect space, right downtown on Walnut, a few blocks off the square. They put the money down on a lease. They don’t have the money to open the place yet, but that’ll come. Briana’s stepfather, Chris Galloway, keeps telling them it’ll come.

They’ll call the place Pappos. In Latin, it means “to eat.”

What better name for two foodies who want nothing more than to bring to this corner of the Ozarks a pizza made with old-world craftsmanship?

They put a big sign in each of the store’s front windows, white letters on red text. On top, they write the name of the future restaurant. Below, they put those two little words.

Coming soon.

Those words will torture them, haunt them, inspire them.

Soon. They promise themselves that. It will be here. Together, they will build this restaurant. They will open it.

Soon is what they say as they keep pushing towards a fixed destination along an ever-changing timeline. Soon is not so much an answer as an aspiration. Soon is the source of their struggle and the reason for their hope.

Jon walks past those words every day. He will think about taking a Sharpie and marking in a little asterisk next to those words. Below them, he wants to tell the world how he feels.

Stop asking when we’ll open, he wants to say. Soon is a relative term.

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Outside the new pizza restaurant coming to downtown Springfield.
(Above) Outside the new pizza restaurant coming to downtown Springfield. (At top) Jon Swisher and Briana Mathews, the couple behind Pappos.

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Springfield, Mo., is a town that loves to eat — and eat out. There are more than 800 restaurants in this town, according to the city’s visitors bureau. This town treats food in the same way New York or Paris treats food: As a form of entertainment. Dining’s about the experience, not just the meal.

But unlike New York or Paris, Springfield isn’t a town with high-priced, multi-course, gourmet meals. There aren’t celebrity chefs here. Golden Corral and Cheddar’s are local favorites — assuming you can even get a table at lunch hour. They’re always packed.

Head downtown and the landscape changes for restaurants. Springfield officials aren’t shy about touting the progress that’s been made downtown. Businesses are moving in. Lofts are opening up. Thanks to a strong push from local universities, college students are starting to frequent downtown. In April 2011, the city noted in a strategic planning report that $410 million — from both public and private investors — has been pumped into the downtown area since 1997. A few dozen restaurants have started to take root — quirky places like Gailey’s for breakfast; Grad School for lunch; Aviary Cafe or Flame at night.

It’s here, in the heart of downtown, that the two young entrepreneurs — Briana and Jon — are trying to build something of their own.

Between them, there’s hardly a job they haven’t worked in the restaurant business. They’ve served tables, prepped food and baked. Briana even spent a year at culinary school. But neither has ever created a job in the restaurant business.

What they do have is ambition. They have that drive that young people have — to build something great, and especially to avoid life in a cubicle. Nationwide, 17 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds are unemployed and looking for work — some four million young Americans. It’s an uncertain job market, and Briana and Jon do not want to end up like so many of those young people.

They want to build something that can last — for themselves, and for the city they currently call home.

“I want Pappos to be that place where people go, ‘Oh, you’ve got to check out Pappos. Their pizza is awesome,'” Briana says in May. “You go to Springfield, you go to Pappos.”

They have a goal: Get this place open by July 1. That’s still a few months away. They need some cash — $80,000 more just to get the doors open — but they’ve got some investors who are interested. From the day they get the check in hand, it’ll take a month to get the place open, they think.

The key is getting it open before Briana’s classes start back up in mid-August. They plan out a worst-case scenario: Pappos opens the first week of August. They’re already paying rent on a restaurant that doesn’t have funding, staff or kitchen equipment. Their money runs out in September.

“The meter’s ticking,” Jon says.

So they’ve got some work to do. They don’t know exactly what’s ahead for them, but they aren’t going into this completely blindly. They’ve got a support system in place — led by Chris at the Village Market — willing to offer advice and support. They’ve got a pizza recipe that sells.

But best of all, they have this space. It’s got room for 70 or 75 seated customers. It’s got big windows in the front, and a big bar. It’s got an open kitchen — perfect for letting customers sit back and watch homemade dough turn into dinner. A dark little Italian place, the Gallery Bistro, was here for more than a decade. Then it closed. Briana and Jon signed the lease before someone else could steal this spot from them. That was in February. Jon went straight to the printer and got two big signs for the windows. Might as well let everyone know what’s coming, they thought. They looked around their new storefront and made a decision: No matter what it took, they’d bring this place to life.

And their pizza would help them do it.

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Chris Galloway, the man behind the famed Pappos pizza.
Chris Galloway, the man behind the Pappos pizza.

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When Pappos does open, Briana and Jon hope customers will remember the service at Pappos and the ambience inside. But first and foremost, they hope customers will rave about the pizza itself.

The story of that pizza goes back to the early 1980s — and to Briana’s stepfather, Chris.

For as long as he can remember, Chris has been a Domino’s man. He started there working for $3.70 an hour. Then he started working his way up. Domino’s had a career ladder back then: Spend a year managing a store, find an owner to “sponsor” you, and you too can own your first Domino’s franchise. Chris followed the plan. In 1984, he opened his first Domino’s in Jefferson City, Mo. Four years later, he had 20 stores, 500 employees and $10 million per year in sales.

He was 29.

But the business wore on him. He got tired of being a Domino’s man, cranking out the same old pizzas for coupon-cutting families or drunk college kids.

“Franchises are frustrating because they find ways to cut corners on quality,” he says. “They control you. They don’t allow for a lot of innovation.”

He wanted out — and in 2002, he got out.

About the same time, he remarried. He had four kids from a previous marriage — Jamie, Warren, Michael and Hannah. His new bride, Melissa, had three — Tyler, Briana and Emily. They moved all seven of them under one roof in Fenton, Mo.

Briana and Chris butted heads. Briana was a daddy’s girl. Her dad was Greg Mathews, a former pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. She didn’t like being away from him. She was in middle school, and a rebel in the Galloway household. She wasn’t happy about her new home.

Meanwhile, Chris looked for life after Domino’s. He started playing in bands and finding small business opportunities on the side. At home, he threw himself into baking. He had an old Italian recipe for bread that had been passed down through his family — even Briana liked it. He became obsessed with pizza. Domino’s had squashed his creativity, he thought. He wanted to make a pizza that could show everyone what he could really do in the kitchen.

The problem was, his pizza wasn’t very good.

“Whenever I’d make pizza at home,” he says, “basically, it sucked.”

And then a new opportunity came along in 2010. Chris and Melissa had moved to the Lake of the Ozarks, central Missouri’s summertime playground. An investment opportunity got him excited. The place was called the Village Station, and it was a combination gas station, convenience store and restaurant. The property needed a new owner and a new direction.

Was Chris interested?

“This was an opportunity to do something special,” he says.

So Chris Galloway, the Domino’s man, got himself back into the game, this time for himself. He didn’t have the pizza recipe yet, but that would come. He told himself that it would come.

He threw himself into the pizza making. He tossed. He kneaded. He baked.

The pizza wasn’t right.

He hired a baker, Austin Teel, who had a background as a mechanic. They started working it like a chemistry experiment. You only change one thing in an experiment, Austin told him. Keep the rest constant. So they played with the variables. More water this time, more flour or olive oil the next. They tested like madmen. They scoured the Internet for pizza tips and ideas.

It still wasn’t right.

Chris started scrambling. It was days before the restaurant was set to open. This was his new restaurant, his big chance to show everyone that he was more than just a Domino’s man. And this was his product? This pizza that he’d spent almost a decade testing and couldn’t get right? This pizza that even his mechanic-turned-chef couldn’t figure out?

So Chris turned to the only man he had left in his corner. He was desperate.

Chris turned to the Lord.

He knows it sounds crazy now, but he swears it’s true. Lord, he said. I need these recipes. My neighbors, my customers — they’re watching. They’re waiting for these pizzas. Please help me.

And in turn, Chris says, a pizza recipe was handed down to him. It did not come to him in a dream or a vision. But in the final hours before the restaurant was set to open, he and Austin went into the kitchen and made a final batch of pizzas.

It was right.

“I’ve really gotta give credit to the Lord,” he says now. “I think my prayers were answered. And I really do mean that sincerely. It sounds crazy, but I really believe that something there spiritually happened to make that all happen.”

The place opened, this time as the Village Market. The pizza from the heavens sold. Customers came in for the Chicken Cholula, with hot sauce soaked into the chicken and cilantro baked on top. They came in for the Chicken Caesar, with dressing slathered across the crust. They came in for the Italian Tomato and Basil, with enough olive oil and garlic to make his Italian ancestors proud.

They made bread and dough every day from scratch. They made their own sauce, with fresh garlic and basil. They cooked on big deck ovens, the kind that leave a crust brown and bubbly and light. This pizza wouldn’t be anything like Domino’s, Chris promised himself.

It wasn’t, and customers noticed. It sold well right from the start. The pizza wasn’t cheap — at $16 to $20 for a large pie, a single Village Market pizza was what the chains sell a couple of pizzas for — but customers came anyway. [1]

Then customers started asking Chris: When is this pizza going to come elsewhere? When will you start expanding?

“All of a sudden,” he says, “there was this epiphany that happened to take this product into other places.”

One of the biggest supporters of his pizza was — much to his surprise — Briana. They’d fought when she was younger, but she’d grown up. She’d gone to culinary school, and she’d developed a reputation as a foodie — just like him. They didn’t agree on much, but they agreed on this pizza.

So did Briana’s boyfriend, Jon. They both raved about the pizza. And about the time Chris started thinking about expanding the Village Market to other locations, Briana and Jon started pressing Chris on the idea of making Springfield the first franchise.

We need this, they said. Springfield needs this pizza.

It sounded like a reasonable pitch, Chris thought.

He started thinking about a name for the place. The Village Market didn’t seem right for restaurant without a market attached. He thought about the nickname that Mariah, his granddaughter, had given him: “Pappo Chris.” He looked up the word. Turned out “pappo” also meant “to eat” in Latin.

Pappos it was.

He started looking for locations in Springfield. There was one promising location downtown, but it was too big. He was scrolling through Craigslist when he saw an ad for the newly available Gallery Bistro space. He sent Briana and Jon to check it out.

“They both said, ‘Yes, this is it,'” he remembers. “This is where you want to be.”

Then they said something else that surprised him: We should be the ones running this place.

It was another epiphany, Chris says. It made sense. Briana and Jon could take care of the day-to-day stuff. They had the drive. They had the ambition. They had this pizza, this recipe that customers were begging him to bring to all corners of Missouri.

And worst-case scenario, they had him. He could always swoop and save the day if necessary.

Chris said yes. Let’s start our first franchise in Springfield. You two can run it.

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The Pappos kitchen on May 10
The Pappos kitchen on May 10.

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There is grease stuck to the ceiling of their new restaurant. There is grease caked on the floor. There are boxes and boxes of milk cartons — 10 years worth of receipts inside — that the previous owner had neglected to take with him when his restaurant closed. The A/C unit is leaking through the back walls. It’s early May.

“We knew we were going to have to be in there a lot and doing a lot of work, but after a few weeks of this, we just had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” Briana says. “The amount of work — it was just something new every day.”

They feel the pressure to prove to Chris that they’re the right people to start this restaurant. They throw themselves into the work. Respect is earned through work, they tell themselves.

But others in Springfield aren’t so patient. There’s a little box outside the door for job seekers. The box keeps filling up. The salesmen from equipment companies and food providers keep stopping by. Vultures, Jon calls them. All the traffic is coming thanks to those two signs in the windows.

They push on. The place starts to look like a restaurant, not just a endless list of to-do’s. When they signed the lease, their focus was long term, but now they’re getting bogged down in the day-to-day details. Chris is supporting the new Springfield location with money from the Village Market. They need new money soon. Chris and Melissa, Briana’s parents, promise to kick in $10,000. Patty and Mike, Jon’s parents, promise another $10,000.

But they need more. To get this place open, Pappos has two options: Get the money from a private investor, or get a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. They need another $80,000.

Chris starts talking to investors. The SBA takes time to hand over the check. Investors can move faster. But the initial results of the investor search aren’t promising. Some want their money back — guaranteed. Some want a sizable cut of all profits, one Chris deems too large. Investor after investor falls through.

Still, Briana and Jon are optimistic. The restaurant is starting to come together. They’ve repainted the walls. Jon’s personally reupholstered all of the chairs in the restaurant. They’ve cleaned out the messy basement and closet space.

It feels like something is taking shape.

“It’s coming around,” Jon says. “It’s a time process. We definitely didn’t think it was going to take as much time as it did. But as we’re going, I’d say we’re growing up. We’re realizing that it’s a bigger thing than what we thought initially going in. So now we’re coming to the realization that it’s going to open, but we’re taking our time with it. We want everything to be just right. We don’t want to open too fast.”

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Talk to enough restaurant owners and a common number eventually pops up: Nine out of 10 new restaurants fail.

That number’s something of a myth, it turns out. According to a 2007 study, only 25 percent of businesses fail within the first year, and three out of five fail within the first three years.

Briana and Jon are aware of the stats. That’s why they’ve started to grow their team, relying upon consultants and friends to help them avoid the mistakes that new restaurant owners often make.

One new member of their team is Dustin Ross, a consultant with BizPros LLC in Marshfield, Mo. Managing businesses is his life. He started at age 21, managing an O’Charley’s in Stillwater, Okla. He managed a chain of chicken joints here in Springfield, and then two Old Chicagos in the area.

At BizPros, he works with restaurant owners like Briana and Jon. His goal is help Pappos get an SBA loan, but to do it, they’ll need to get their budget set, line by line. They need to know everything, because the SBA will ask them everything.

Cleaning supplies alone will cost $3,500 per year, Dustin tells them.

Just thinking about the numbers, Dustin thinks Briana and Jon look sick.

But it’s a face that Dustin’s seen before. Entrepreneurs have to start somewhere, and many of them are choosing to start right here in Missouri. This is the sixth most entrepreneurial state in the nation, according to a 2012 study by the Kauffman Foundation. Forbes named Springfield the forty-second best place to start a business or career, just ahead of cities like Indianapolis and Little Rock, Ark. Especially attractive was Springfield’s cost of doing business — the city ranked 14th on Forbes’ list.

Springfield’s as good a place as any to try to start a business, Dustin thinks. If Briana and Jon had more business experience, they’d have the money they need already, he believes. But they have Chris, and Dustin can help them get their budget and paperwork in order for the SBA.

“Their eyes are as big as saucers sometimes,” he says. “They go, ‘Oh, man.’ But at the end of that, if people still want to do this, then they’ve got the passion for it. And these two kids have the passion for this.”

Passion’s what they’ll need if they want to survive that crazy first year, says Danny Schlink, owner of Springfield restaurants Grad School and J.O.B. Once the doors open, things get crazy quickly.

“There’s not much like getting killed in a restaurant for 12 hours,” he says, “and then turning around and doing it the next day and the next day and the next day.”

He knows the experience well. Four years ago, he decided to open Grad School, a griddle-top burger place, with a loan from the SBA. He didn’t have the team that Briana and Jon have, but he found help via the Small Business & Technology Development Center at Missouri State. They helped him get the paperwork ready.

The SBA doesn’t take loan applications directly. Instead, it works through local banks. A bank handles the application, and if it’s approved, the paperwork moves on to the SBA, which gives the final go-ahead. The SBA covers much of the risk on the loan, which banks like. If the investment fails, the SBA makes sure the failure isn’t all that costly for a bank.

But the loan applicant still needs to put up collateral. Danny put everything he had on the table: his car and some cash. If his restaurant failed, they’d take both from him.

Even that wasn’t enough. He submitted his SBA application to more than 20 banks in the Springfield area. All said no. Nobody wanted to take a chance on a first-time restaurant owner.

“It’s incredibly disheartening,” he says, looking back now.

But all it takes is one bank to say yes. Liberty Bank liked what they heard, and the SBA agreed. They handed him $50,000.

“Money is the only thing that matters,” he says. “If you don’t have it, you can’t do anything. All the effort, all the planning in the world doesn’t get you past being undercapitalized.”

He’s seen that with Briana and Jon firsthand. Danny’s girlfriend knows the couple, and they all got to talking a few months back. Danny offers help where he can, but he’s hesitant to offer unsolicited advice. Some mistakes you have to make for yourself, he says.

But remember, he says: “It’s not nearly as scary doing it as not doing it.” Better to live with lessons and regret than none at all.

He’s heard about their money problems. They’ve done it a strange way: Getting the location first, then the money. They’re paying rent before they have the cash to start up the business itself. He’s hoping that someone — an investor, the SBA — steps up.

“I really wish the best for them,” he says. “I hope they get the doors open.”

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The Chicken Cholula pizza at the Village Market.
The Chicken Cholula pizza at the Village Market.

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With Dustin’s help, Briana and Chris get a meeting with a bank to discuss an SBA loan. It’s with Liberty Bank, the same place that first gave Grad School a chance. They go through the budget line by line, talking about the numbers and how competition in Springfield stacks up against Pappos. The bank sounds impressed, Jon thinks. They seem to think the numbers all look realistic. They hand Briana and Jon a formal application to work on.

The month of May is almost over, but they finally have the SBA loan application in their hands.

“We have an open mind about it,” Briana says a few days after the meeting. “Anything could happen. This seems promising, but if it doesn’t work out, we’ll move on to the next option.”

The good news is, there’s no major collateral on the table for this loan, just cash. “If this thing goes under, our family isn’t going to be uprooted and moved into a mobile home,” Jon jokes. Their reputations are on the line, but that’s all.

There’s some dread and anxiety in their voices as they talk about the SBA process, but not much. They’ve never applied for a bank loan before. They’ve never been rejected by a bank before. They’re not sure what to expect.

“Not knowing the full extent of how wrong something could go probably makes our lives just a little bit easier,” Jon says. He’s right. It’s a case where their naïveté can be a strength. Instead of worrying, they’re focusing on the restaurant and getting things in here ready.

Chris is calling often, telling them that he might have a new investor on the line. That gets the Pappos team excited. Briana and Jon start entertaining the thought of a second location, a delivery place they could open after the first one gets big.

But Dustin’s also feeding them the worst-case scenarios. Jon calls him the doomsday guy, telling them what could go wrong and where they could fall.

“It’s something we need to think about,” Briana says. “Hopefully it won’t happen, but if it does, where are we going to go from here? What are we going to do?”

Jon admits that he’s been letting the thought dangle. He’s got a “Move Back In” card he can still play with his parents, and he’s got a background in construction that he can turn to. Briana would focus on school full time if this placed closed.

Still, they’re excited about their product at Pappos. That’s their biggest selling point, and if they get this place open, they think it’ll be a hit.

“I feel really confident in this pizza,” she says. “I really think it’ll do well. This is something that Springfield needs.”

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The Pappos kitchen on July 12. Painting's in progress.
The Pappos kitchen on July 12. Painting’s in progress.

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It’s June. Jon gets a call from the bank. Your restaurant doesn’t look financially strong enough to put into the portfolio, the bank says. It’s another setback. Chris’s investors have fallen through again, and now the bank’s saying no, too.

“We just gotta keep going, I guess,” Jon says. “So that’s where we we’re at. Bri and I probably both thought, in our minds, we both definitely thought it was going to happen faster, and that we had a little bit more set in stone before we jumped in. And then we found out that pretty much that we were standing on wet concrete. And now we’re just dancing around trying not to get stuck in it.”

Dustin goes in and talks to the bank. What they’re really saying, it turns out, is that the bank’s not entirely sold on Briana and Jon. They want Chris to be formally involved, and they want more collateral on the table.

Briana and Jon put their cars up as collateral, but that’s not enough, the bank says.

Jon calls his mother, Patty. She’s a math teacher at Mexico High School in Mexico, Mo. Could you co-sign the loan? he asks. She’d have to add the family’s house in Mexico as collateral. If this restaurant goes under, the bank can take it from them.

Patty starts thinking about what Jon’s facing. He wasn’t always the most tactful kid growing up, she says. He’d argue with teachers in class. He got in trouble often for voicing his opinion.

But she’s also seen him mature. He’s found that tact, she says, and he’s willing to stand up for himself. If something goes wrong with the restaurant, she tells herself, he won’t sink alone. He’ll turn to others for help.

Having Chris around gives her some peace of mind. They need that extra guidance, she thinks. Then she sees the location for the new Pappos. She looks around at what’s downtown and where Pappos could fit in. This is gonna go, she thinks.

Patty thinks about the way her family supported her when she was coming out of school. The road ahead can be strange, she knows.

It’s why she’s always told Jon: You don’t give up on things you want. When he announced that he was moving to Springfield to study architecture at Drury University, the family supported him. When he decided to focus on construction management instead, they said okay. When he announced that he was opening a restaurant with Briana, they told him they’d help. Patty said she’d take time off at school to help at the restaurant. Whatever it takes to help Jon get the things he wants.

Patty makes a decision: She’ll co-sign the SBA paperwork.

“It never really was a question to me. Now my husband on the other hand, he’s like, We sure?” she says. She puts her foot down: “I’m here to support my kid. This is him. Now, if I didn’t think he could make a success of it, I wouldn’t put in for it. But I have faith in Jon that whatever he’s going to commit to, he’s going to make it go.”

With Patty on board, and a management plan from Chris added to the paperwork, they resubmit their application to the bank. But time’s starting to run short. Briana takes a job at Springfield Brewing Company, a few blocks west of Pappos. She needs the cash to keep paying bills. Jon starts to feel trapped. He’s in limbo. He’s got a storefront but no money. He’s got a job title but no work.

Chris keeps talking about potential investors, but none have come through. None have even visited the property. The SBA loan — round II — starts to seem like the way forward.

“It kind of sucks it’s not open,” Jon admits. “Everywhere we go out, every time we go out anywhere, the second someone asks us what we do, we tell them we’re opening this restaurant, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God! You’re opening up that restaurant? That’s you guys? I can’t wait to come in!’ Every random person we run into says, ‘We can’t wait to have a pizza restaurant downtown.'”

But it’s not there yet. Every step forward seems to bring more complication. If the bank says yes this time, the restaurant can open within a month’s time. But they’re not sure when that might happen.

“I’m definitely frustrated,” Briana says. “It’s like a tease. It’s like, ‘Oh, yes! Maybe we can actually start.’ And then something always happens. We’ve already invested so much into this. I would hate for this not to work out. But I still have faith it in.”

So does Jon. He’s waking up every day, coming to the store to do little things — working on chairs, cleaning, painting. Little victories, all of them. The support from friends and strangers keeps him moving. He knows the pizza’s still selling great at the Lake. It’s already successful, he thinks.

But it’s tough to stay upbeat. Everything’s taking so much time — too much time.

He walks around the restaurant sometimes, sitting in the chairs, envisioning the atmosphere. What if we turn the chairs this way? he asks himself. What if we swing the tables that way?

He thinks about a restaurant where he worked a few years back: Paradise Tropical Restaurant, a place at the Lake of the Ozarks. In summer 2010, it was chaos. The restaurant had three floors, and the kitchen was on the top one. Jon worked the docks, keeping track of the boats coming in off the lake.

He started to notice a new server at Paradise: Briana. He noticed her tattoos first. There was a line of music — something from Stravinsky’s “The Right of Spring” — on the inside of her right forearm. He thought it looked classy.

They found each other at a party a few weeks later, an annual employee thing at a place called Shorty Pants. They kissed. It was a summer romance — “Grease” meets the Midwest. He was the lake rat. She was the city girl.

“He was exactly what I needed at that time,” Briana says. “He kind of just helped me just relax and enjoy life and summer. I’m very OCD and controlling, but he helped me break out of my shell a little bit, and I helped him calm down a lot.”

When Briana decided to move to Springfield for school, the romance continued. One restaurant brought them together. Now a new restaurant, Pappos, is bringing them even closer.

But without the money to open, their own finances become a concern. Coming soon? By now, it’s a cruel tease. Things just aren’t breaking the way Jon wants them to.

“I’m more of a luck guy than a fate guy,” he says. “Luck and patience are your two best things in life. Because everyone gets lucky.”

But you can’t expect luck. You can’t depend on it as a savior.

“You have to be patient enough to wait for that lucky moment,” he continues, “and then be smart enough to take advantage, to see that moment and seize it.”

And then, finally, a few days after the 4th of July, good news shows up on Walnut Street.

¶ ¶ ¶

Chris Galloway makes a pizza at the Village Market.
Chris Galloway makes a pizza at the Village Market.

¶ ¶ ¶

Liberty Bank approves their application. It’s a huge break for Pappos, but it’s not a breakthrough. The SBA itself needs to approve the loan, and Dustin’s telling Briana and Jon that the SBA is backed up. It could take up to 90 days to approve the loan, and they know that it’ll take a month from that point to get the restaurant open.

At that pace, Pappos won’t open until winter. Best-case scenario: a Sept. 1 opening day.

“I didn’t think it was going to happen as soon as we planned it to, but I didn’t realize that it was going to be so difficult to get the money,” Briana says. “I thought we had a great idea, and the restaurant was here. All we had to do was clean and paint, do the little things. I thought we were going to get the money a lot sooner. It’s not the case at all.”

Maybe they were too optimistic, she admits. Maybe they were foolish. But they know now what they’re up against. Money will come — eventually. It’s out of their control, she says.

They’re out of limbo and straight into purgatory. They’re not clear of this mess yet.

They haven’t shut the door on a non-SBA investment, either. There’s a new investor interested in Pappos. It’s a funny coincidence, Jon says. He’s got a friend from the Lake named Josh. “He’s one of those friends, you don’t really know how you met, you’ve just been friends for four or five years,” Jon says. Turns out Josh’s dad used to own a Domino’s down in Bolivar, Mo. He’s been out of the business for a while, but he loves pizza, and he’d seen the “Coming Soon” signs in the window. So he asked Josh if he’d heard anything about this Pappos place.

Yeah, Josh said. I know the guys running it.

He passed along Jon’s phone number, and they talked. He’ll come by later today — July 12.

His name’s Gary, Jon says. Of all the investors they’ve talked about, he’ll be the first to actually visit the property.

¶ ¶ ¶

The money never comes easy. Gary Fenton knows that firsthand.

He was only 23 when, like Chris, he was offered the chance to own his own Domino’s franchise.

He didn’t quite have the money, though. He’d been going to Southwest Missouri State [2], but he dropped out. He’d been working as a driver at Domino’s, but that only paid so much. So he starting managing at one of the Springfield locations, and he started saving. With that money and a loan from the SBA, he got the funds — and opened his first store in Bolivar, Mo.

He wanted to expand and get more stores, but Springfield was saturated with Domino’s. The franchise wasn’t interested in expanding here.

So he found a buyer and sold his store. In the pizza business, he’d gotten interested in accounting. He went back to school to become a CPA. In 2003, he started his own accounting business. He was the sole employee. The business grew to a staff of six.

But he never stopped thinking about his old Domino’s. He never got the chance to expand his pizza empire. He really wanted another one.

And all these years later, he finally had the money to own another one.

Then he sees the “Coming Soon” sign downtown. He asks Josh about the store, and Josh connects him to Briana and Jon. He goes in just hoping to offer help or advice. Then Briana mentions that her stepfather is Chris Galloway.

Gary’s ears perk up. He knows Chris, the guy who actually did build a mini pizza empire in Missouri. They talk some more, and then Gary decides to pay Chris a visit at the Lake.

They get along immediately. Both are driven, both have the Domino’s background and both like to make their own pizzas at home. They talk a little about what’s happening now at the Village Market and a lot about what could happen for a future Pappos franchise.

They make a few pizzas. Gary makes sure to try the supreme pizza — it goes by many names at other places, but it’s always the one with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, onions and green peppers.

“Any place that does that pizza well does most pizzas well,” he says.

It only takes a few bites to figure out that they do it really well.

He’s impressed by Briana and Jon, too. He knows what they’re going through. He was their age when he opened his Domino’s. He knows that it takes longer to open a store than you think. It takes more money than you think.

“It’s tough when you’re 23 or 24 and you’re trying to do something,” he says.

He loves their attitude. You need confidence and energy to make a restaurant work. Jon, in particular, impresses him. Briana’s plan is to be the face of Pappos, staying up front, dealing with customers. Jon will be the engine in the back.

With that team on the ground in Springfield, and Chris taking a hands-on role in the restaurant, Gary’s close to saying yes. Chris sends him some paperwork.

Gary leaves for Colorado for a few days to go mountain biking across the Rockies. He’s thinking about Pappos the whole way. He loves the location on Walnut. He’s a big fan of downtown. If he comes on board, he can take care of the payroll and books for Pappos, which will free up the team at the restaurant to focus on product and service.

As a CPA, he’s seen restaurants open and close. He’s got a radar for restaurant owners whose stores aren’t built to last. Pappos’ vital signs — their team, their product, their location — all look good.

“I’ve been around enough,” he says. “You can just tell, I can just tell when someone can do well or not. I think they will. I hope they do. I hope for their sakes that they do.”

He gives the team the call when he gets back from Colorado. He’s in.

It’s the first week of August.

One call changes everything for Pappos. Suddenly, an opening day in early fall is a possibility. They won’t need an SBA loan anymore, which means Jon’s parents can sleep easy knowing that their home doesn’t depend on the success of their son’s restaurant.

Plus, with Gary now on the team, Briana and Jon have yet another advisor to bounce ideas off of. Getting to opening day — and beyond — could be that much easier with another ex-restaurant guy on board.

“We expect a fast start here,” Gary says. “I guess the good thing about the sign being up in the window for the last five months is people are wondering when this thing is going to open. We hear that all the time. I see people downtown, and they’re like, ‘I don’t know if that thing is going to open.’”

So when it is opening? “Shouldn’t be very long,” he says. This time, soon seems like a reality.

¶ ¶ ¶


Briana and Jon on Aug. 12, inside a kitchen that’s starting to come together.

¶ ¶ ¶

It’s the end of August, and the team’s almost ready to get moving. There’s so much left to do. All of the equipment needs to be ordered. [3] They need to start hiring staff. They want to commission original works of art from local artists, small tributes to the city that will hang on the walls.

They’re going to start calling in favors. Michael, Briana’s stepbrother, is going to come down to help them manage the store for a few weeks. Chris will be down in Springfield maybe a third of the time, they’re guessing, so having Michael — the current manager at the Village Market — on hand should ease the transition. Michael’s got two goals in mind: good product and good service. If they nail those, he says, Pappos can be a hit.

They’re going to reach out to friends and relatives for help. An uncle in St. Louis does electrical work. A friend has volunteered to paint the Pappos logo above the bar.

They’ve also got an ally in the food business. They’ll be getting their food from Sysco, a national distributor. In 2011, Briana nannied for a little boy in Springfield named Jack. His father just happens to be Briana’s and Jon’s Sysco contact.

They feel lucky to have all this help. Without it, they’re not sure where they’d be.

Maybe out of business, they admit.

No one’s quite sure how it’ll work with Briana and Jon once the doors open. This restaurant will put their relationship under the microscope. They’ve worked at the same restaurant, Paradise, but never together. They’re optimistic, as always, about how it’ll play out. It’ll be fun to work together, they say. And if something goes wrong, the ownership structure they’ve recently drawn up gives them an out.

“Everything that we have in this restaurant is separate,” Briana says. “We have our own ownership. We have our own money that’s being [put into this]. So everything is separate right now. So if anything happened, God forbid, it wouldn’t affect the restaurant at all.”

Down the road at Grad School, Danny’s nervous about how it’ll all come together once Pappos opens.

“I would hope their relationship is very strong,” he says. “When you get two heads making a decision, oftentimes it becomes very difficult.”

Factor in Chris’s influence [4] and it could very interesting. But so far, Chris has stayed mostly hands off. He’s let them make their own mistakes. He’s let them learn from the process.

“I knew there were some roadblocks that had occurred and were occurring,” he says, “and I purposefully didn’t jump in and put my Superman cape on and go solve the problem.”

They still haven’t hit the hard part — not even close. There will come a time, he says, when the orders at the new place pile up, when the stress builds. He calls that moment of ultimate chaos being “blown away.” They’ll understand it when it happens, he says. He’s confident that they’ll keep at it even when it does.

Briana and Jon aren’t typical restaurant owners. They’re trying to bust their way onto the crowded Springfield restaurant scene, and they’re backed by a big list of supporters and advisors. They’ve got a lot to work for. But it’s their personal goals that they’re trying to put first.

For Jon, Pappos is about having something to call his own. His friends are starting to get promotions and new opportunities. He wants it too, that thing that he can show off as his. He wants to be able to show his work.

“Now’s going to be the real test of what I can do,” he says.

The same is true for Briana. But she’s also ready to prove that she can finish what she started. She went to culinary school for a year but didn’t finish. She’s still working on her college degree. She loved music as a young girl, but all she has to show for it now is the tattoo on her right arm. It’s time for her to cross something big off the bucket list.

“Some people, it seems everything just magically falls into place,” she says. “For me, I have to constantly keep fighting and working hard at it.”

Together, all that hard work will get Pappos to opening day. But Chris isn’t satisfied with one store. He wants more. He wants to make Pappos big — and he wants to use the Springfield store to show just how big it can be.

“I see a big future for Jon and Briana,” he says. “If they want to own five, 10 stores themselves, or maybe they want to be part of the company as it grows. We want to open 50 or 100 of these Pappos. But we’re anti-franchise. Even if we do have a franchise structure, we’re going to be the anti-franchise franchise. We’re going to have the kind of quality that a passionate individual would have. We’re going to treat people with respect and give people opportunities and support and encourage people.”

For now, there’s just the one store, and it’s so close to being ready. They can see this place opening, they say. They know what their pizza smells like, and they can’t wait to smell it here.

Springfield is waiting for this pizza, they know. It’s finally coming. They promise themselves that. After all this, it’s coming — and soon. By October, they say.

This time, they know it for sure.

Stry.us reporter Jordan Hickey contributed reporting to this story.

‘About Six Neighbors Is All I Can Trust.’

When it comes to civic engagement and building trust, economically strapped neighborhoods don’t always fare so well. But one Springfield neighborhood is challenging that notion one step at a time.

story by Zach Crizer / photos by Sarah Elms
published September 6, 2012

Two Missouri State University sociology professors are sitting in Mudlounge on Walnut Street in downtown Springfield, talking about the rather abstract concept of social capital [1]. The reason for such a conversation is that the professors, Mike Stout and John Harms — along with their colleague Tim Knapp — recently completed a study on social capital and civic engagement in the Ozarks.

In one of the highlighted passages in their report, they explain that “social capital exists when members of a community have networks of trusting mutual relationships with others.” And once you get past the definitions, the theory is pretty clear:

  • Communities with more social capital should see more civic engagement.
  • More civic engagement usually leads citizens to improve their communities.
  • Increasing social capital — the networks of trusting relationships — will make communities better.

It’s an idea that makes sense and doesn’t necessarily seem as though it’d warrant the extensive study undertaken by the professors. It seems like a fairly simple, straightforward concept. However, in Greene County, it’s not that simple. What the professors found when they were conducting a similar 2008 study was that the theory didn’t fit here. Greene County didn’t follow the pattern. The area has levels of social capital above the national average. But its civic participation doesn’t follow suit. And many neighborhoods in Springfield are struggling.

Right here, in the Mudlounge, Stout says, the top leaders of Springfield society meet informally each week. That group of people forms an extraordinary strength for the area — leaders from across the business, non-profit and government sectors are working together and communicating freely. They trust one another.

“There’s lots of connecting happening across the sectors of Springfield’s society at the top, but it’s not so much at the bottom,” Stout says. “And that was one of the main findings we had: Civic participation and trust and everything have increased for people with the highest levels of education and income, but it’s basically remained flat for people with lower education and income.”

It’s an issue that’s not gone unnoticed here in Springfield. It’s the reason that in the past several years, the city has asked its residents for their opinions — to tell their city what they’d like to see changed. It’s the reason that studies such as this one are being undertaken — and that they’ve been reaching the right ears. And it’s the reason that on Aug. 24, the people of the Robberson community came together and started to talk.

¶ ¶ ¶

On August 24, the Robberson neighborhood took part in the National Night Out event, a nationwide initiative aimed at preventing crime and drug use.

¶ ¶ ¶

In the Robberson neighborhood on the north side of town, the problem Stout describes is evident in the most basic of measurements, like how many of their neighbors residents feel they can trust. It’s something that’s best expressed when Donna Walter unfolds her hands, lifts them out of her lap, stares at her slowly unclenching fists and then looks up.

“About six neighbors is all I can trust.” [2]

Walter’s family is firmly entrenched in Robberson, to say the least. She’s sitting in a row of chairs at Robberson’s National Night Out — part of the larger nationwide event that seeks to prevent crime and drug prevention. [3] She is in the middle seat. To her left are her mother and grandmother. To her right, her daughter and granddaughter. All five generations — from age 9 to 94 — live in the neighborhood, and at least one member of the family has called Robberson home since 1947.

But even for as familiar a place as it is, the community is not without its faults. When her granddaughter, Stormy, is at her house, Walter doesn’t let her play outside without supervision. “I don’t know who’s walking up and down the streets,” she says. “Kids can’t play out like they could when I was little. I’m more leery.”

This event, hopefully, is a step toward changing that.

Having identified a reason neighborhoods like Robberson may be struggling in terms of civic health, the professors are also involved in several attempts to solve the problem.

“The key is to get them to have a venue, to have opportunities, to interact with each other,” Stout says.

So tonight, in the parking lot of Pathways United Methodist Church, there is a large group of children swirling around in a group. There is a Springfield Police officer here to build goodwill. He opens the event with a prayer spoken through the loudspeakers on his cruiser. Then he lets the kids play in the cruiser. Two men are standing on a trailer near the church, grilling hot dogs and passing them to women in brightly colored T-shirts.

The events, held throughout Springfield — and across the nation— are designed to help neighbors get to know one another, as well as others who frequent the neighborhood, like police officers. In Robberson, warding off crime was the major topic of conversation. Walter’s mother, Dixie Aleshire, recently had the pink flamingos stolen out of her yard — even though they were made of cement. Rick Miller lives around the corner, and he says he has repeatedly had home improvement equipment and other items stolen from his home.

The Robberson Neighborhood Association’s increasing efforts are evident. Even from this parking lot, neighborhood watch signs are visible. But they’re not the typical notice signs by the road. They hang on fences and sit in yards. They depict a pair of eyes on a bright yellow background. They’re hard to miss.

It seems that everyone here is beginning to take notice of the neighborhood association and the improvement efforts taking hold in Robberson, including changes at the local elementary school.

¶ ¶ ¶

Dolly Vranka, Robberson Neighborhood Association Treasurer, says the neighborhood’s always going to have its good and bad elements. However, it’s just as important to keep those perceptions from defining how neighbors view one another.

¶ ¶ ¶

Of course, the whole neighborhood isn’t here. Still, the turnout, according to neighborhood association treasurer Dolly Vranka, exceeds expectations. The event is in full swing, and after an hour or so of running around organizing the volunteers, Vranka has settled into a post near the end of the food line.

She is holding a sleeve of cups that rests on the plastic table where coolers of lemonade and water wait for thirsty residents. There are no cups to be found anywhere else. Vranka knows this. She watches as each person wanders over to the coolers and scours the spread of utensils and napkins and plates.

“Need a cup?”

If it’s a child, she makes sure they say “please” and “thank you.” If it’s an adult, she will thank them for coming. Everyone is going to talk to Dolly Vranka. Everyone is going to meet another neighbor tonight.

In a neighborhood where crime has left many residents skeptical of the people who live around them, asking neighbors to work together to improve the neighborhood isn’t a simple task.

“This is delicate,” Vranka says. “Everybody’s so different. I’m learning not to judge people based on what they look like.”

Part of the strategy for moving this neighborhood forward, according to the Missouri State professors, is increasing “bridging social capital.” In layman’s terms, that means creating bonds between diverse groups of people — whether the diversity be racial, socioeconomic or otherwise. It’s about showing people their neighbors are in this with them, no matter their background.

“They get to learn what they have in common rather than what their differences are as a result of being able to sit down and have conversations with each other,” Stout says.

“It seems like a ‘duh,’” Harms interjects. “But in most communities it doesn’t happen.”

“It seems like that’s the way things should work, but they don’t,” Stout continues. “Because we tend in our society, especially for the last 30 years, to focus more on the things that divide us than on the things that unite us. And there are very powerful interests that have a stake in making sure that’s the way that things work, because they get to benefit off of that. We can’t continue living in a society where a small number of people are benefiting off of everybody competing with each other when the majority of people would benefit from collaborating with each other.”

The Neighbor for Neighbor program is attempting to foster collaboration. The program is supported by local leaders and powerful organizations, but Stout — one of the program’s organizers — says it is run completely at the grassroots level.

“It’s trying to get people from low-[socioeconomic status] neighborhoods to come together and collaborate on a project together — a project that they designed,” Harms says. “It isn’t coming from up above; it’s bubbling up from below.”

The goal of the program is to organize residents into small groups, where they talk about problems and issues affecting the community and then devise possible initiatives that could improve their neighborhood. After that, the participants organize action groups to begin turning their vision into a reality, with the support of the backing groups. Still, no government leaders or non-profit presidents are coming up with the ideas. The proposals come directly from the residents. The plan was originally devised by Everyday Democracy, a group based in Connecticut.

It’s currently a pilot program being tested in Robberson and Weller. In the future, it could expand to the rest of Springfield. The professors believe the project has the opportunity to unify neighbors into a neighborhood.

“And so what you want to do is you want to provide a context where you bring different people together around a shared issue,” Harms says. “In this community, the shared issue right now is childhood. And I mean, that’s a no-brainer, right? Everybody cares about kids. That’s not a partisan kind of thing. And then when people start telling their own stories, of why they’re there, that’s the key thing.

“Then it breaks down those categories that divide people. All of a sudden — ‘Yeah, you’re different than I am, but we both care about kids’ — and you start telling your stories about why you care about kids and what your interests are and why you’re here.”

¶ ¶ ¶

Springfield’s Robberson neighborhood is looking to the Neighbor for Neighbor program as a means of fostering community discussion and driving initiatives to improve the neighborhood.

¶ ¶ ¶

Nikohl McKee is sitting at the edge of the church parking lot, her back to Dale Street, applying pressure to a young boy’s stick-on tattoo. When she thinks of Robberson, she thinks of the kids.

She moved here with her husband 10 years ago, to raise their kids in the same neighborhood where her husband grew up. Wanting to be involved in the activities of her three school-aged children, McKee found herself involved in Robberson, and hasn’t looked back. She’s a PTA officer. She leads a Girl Scout troop. The neighborhood, she says, has changed her life.

“It has made me realize who I really am. I have embraced our neighborhood,” she says of meeting all of the other children and families in the area. “They come from all different backgrounds, and I love them all the same.”

Being involved has also given her a strong idea of what could be improved in Robberson. Like most parents at the National Night Out, she says there needs to be a place kids can play outside safely. But she has more detailed reasons why that doesn’t exist: lack of green space, unruly traffic, parent engagement levels.

McKee is a participant in the Neighbor for Neighbor project. Her group is looking to work out deals with business owned by Robberson residents that would offer incentives for other neighbors to use those locally owned establishments. It’s a small step, but it can help encourage more interaction.

While she says most people she’s met are willing to get involved, many have to be asked first.

In the church parking lot, it’s not hard to notice that the children are playing together in packs. Parents and other adults are mostly keeping to themselves, or standing in small groups. McKee wants secure futures for her children and the rest of the children in this neighborhood — she is enrolled to get an elementary education degree — but she knows that accomplishing that will require the adults in this neighborhood to act a little bit more like the children.

Children don’t cast suspicious glares out their windows at their peers, she says. They want to go out and play. Over the past 10 years, McKee says more and more neighbors have been doing the same — coming out to talk to one another. “The hardest part is trying to get them to understand they want to be a part of a group,” McKee says.

Her block, she explains, still finds itself together mostly in extreme circumstances — after the loss of a loved one, or during severe weather — but also in some good moments. When there is a rainbow, she says, everyone comes out to see it.

Near the McKee’s house is a basketball hoop that many of the neighborhood’s kids play around. She watches her children when they are outside, and sometimes other parents join her. The parents who meet her are likely to find out McKee can direct them to an abundance of resources, whether it be child care or local businesses or area school information. While that information is being more formally packaged into welcome baskets for new residents by another Neighbor For Neighbor group, Stout and Harms would call the basketball hoop outside McKee’s home a venue.

It’s a place where Robberson residents can talk. It’s a place where a sense of trust can be built. Maybe someday, someday soon, the kids can play without all the parents present. And everyone will look out for everyone else.

Handing out cups to a line of neighbors who are complete strangers, Vranka has a hard time seeing a day where trust is the norm in this neighborhood. [4] There will always be good and bad, she says. But Stout and Harms aren’t envisioning neighborhoods devoid of problems. They envision neighborhoods — even in economically strapped communities — where everyone comes together to solve the problems.

“One of the things that happens when people don’t have a lot of resources is they feel like they’re always competing with everybody else for what they need,” Stout says. “So if you take a bunch of people who are not earning a lot of money and throw rolls of quarters on the ground, they’re all going to dive and fight each other for those rolls of quarters.

“But the key is, if those same people had relationships with each other, they would figure out the best way to get those quarters and distribute them in a more efficient way.”

One Woman. One Job. 52 Years.

Springfield’s health care system has grown by leaps and bounds over the past five decades. It employs thousands of workers across the greater Springfield area. It’s now the hub for medical treatment across the Ozarks. And one woman has been there to see how it’s all changed.

story by Sarah Elms / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published June 30, 2012

Cox South, one of CoxHealth’s four hospitals in Springfield, Mo., stands tall over the buildings that surround it, an icon of the Medical Mile. It’s known for its advanced medical care and Level II Trauma Center, but there’s much more to this hospital than X-rays and stitches.

Stationed in the depths of this 10-story health care hub are the departments that allow such a complex facility to function. They are not the offices of doctors, nurses or surgeons, but instead house those of communications, materials management, a print shop and a mailroom. They fly quietly under the radar, like a well-kept secret that helps the hospital run smoothly day-in and day-out.

Down two elevators, deep below Cox, there is an older woman seated at an office desk littered with papers. She is the former mailroom supervisor, now a mailroom clerk. She’s short, with curly light-brown hair. Today she’s wearing floral scrubs and purple-rimmed glasses. She’s always busy working, and she’s always smiling.

Her name is Margaret Rymer, and she’s 70 years old. Working in the mailroom for CoxHealth was Margaret’s first full-time job out of high school, and she hasn’t left since. Of the more than 9,000 people employed by the company, she still manages to stand out. Margaret is the second-longest tenured employee. For 52 years, the mailroom is where she’s spent most of her time. Working in conjunction with the ever-evolving field of health care, she’s witnessed a lot of changes in her career.

Health care is a major industry in Springfield, and it has continued to grow during Margaret’s tenure. It is home to the region’s most extensive and advanced hospitals, serving more than 900,000 people in a 25-county service area. People come from across southwest Missouri and northern Arkansas to receive medical treatment right here in the Ozarks.

According to the city, the health care industry employs 17 percent of Springfield’s total workforce, with a $4.5 billion annual economic impact. CoxHealth Systems is the second-largest employer in Springfield, right behind Mercy Health Systems, the city’s other major health care provider.

Margaret graduated from Willard High School in 1959 and, as she puts it, spent the subsequent months “just playing.” With the summer winding down, though, she started to look for work. A friend of hers worked in the CoxHealth mailroom — at the time it was in the North campus, and the South facility hadn’t yet been built — but was due to have a baby soon and would be leaving. She told Margaret to apply to replace her, and she got the job.

“I wanted a job, and then when I’d been here about six months, I thought, you really got to try and find you another job to use your shorthand and typing and all that stuff you took in high school,” Margaret says. “And so I got to looking for another job, but it didn’t pay any more than the job I had. So I thought, well, if you like the job there really isn’t any point of going anyplace else.”

In her job in the mailroom, Margaret does a little bit of everything. She sorts the daily mail, putting it in mailboxes or in carts organized by hospital building and wing. She also runs those carts filled with mail to their respective destinations, sometimes taking a van to deliver mail to Cox’s other buildings, North, Monett and Walnut Lawn. In the years when she was a supervisor, she created the schedule that determines who takes what mail where and what route they’ll take to drop it off. She was also in charge of hiring new staff members.

Over the years, Margaret has become a staple of the hospital. She knows just about everyone, and just about everyone knows her. She’s even featured in one of the company’s orientation videos shown to new employees.

Anyone who knows her will tell you Margaret is a walking database of anything and everything related to CoxHealth. She knows the hospital’s history. She knows where every department is in each of Cox’s buildings, and she can tell you who works in those departments, too. Her colleagues always seek her out to answer their questions before consulting building directories or the Internet.

Margaret’s close friend Priscilla Curbow has also worked at CoxHealth for most of her life. She’s going into her 43rd year in the communications department, and has known Margaret since day one. She says everyone in the mailroom runs to Margaret when they don’t know what to do.

“She takes her job seriously, she knows all the ins and outs, she knows how to operate all the mail machines, all the rules. It’s just amazing,” Priscilla says. “She’s an encyclopedia of knowledge.”

She also says Margaret has made a lot of friends at the hospital over the years, many of whom she’s remained close with. “She’s just good, down-home people. No pretense. What you see is what you get, and what you get is good.”

¶ ¶ ¶

(Above) Margaret Rymer sorts through a cart of mail prepped for distribution to the CoxHealth system. (At top) Margaret Rymer, 70, a mailroom clerk at CoxHealth, has been employed by the company for 52 years.

¶ ¶ ¶

When Margaret first started in the mailroom, postage was only four cents. As technology developed, however, methods for processing the mail and printing labels gradually shifted. Manual tasks became automated. Computers and the Internet became the standard. But for all of those advancements, Margaret never allowed herself to fall behind.

“When we first got our direct-image printer, it was computer drawn. You had your names on a disk and chose what you wanted to run,” she says. “I didn’t have any idea how to use a computer, so I thought, well, I’ll have my daughter come in at night just to explain terms to give me some idea.”

Another big adjustment came about with the HIPAA Privacy Rule. It stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, enacted in 1996 to ensure individual’s medical information remains private. “That’s made a lot of difference,” Margaret says. “I think probably the biggest way it affects us is that we do carry a lot of reports, and of course all of those reports have patient names in them.” Now, any document containing patient information has to be in a sealed envelope before it gets to the mailroom.

Margaret remembers one out-of-the-ordinary postal experience from back in the ’70s, when privacy laws weren’t as strict. There was a young boy who was on dialysis, and the doctors had to get a blood sample from Cox North to St. Louis by the end of the day for testing. The mailroom used to transport lab specimens and prescriptions, and it was Margaret’s responsibility to get the blood sample to the post office in time for an emergency flight out to St. Louis. “It was a pretty neat experience,” she says, smiling, as always. “I don’t know if that would happen now.”

Margaret’s world in the mailroom is a different place than it was when she started, but the medical side of things has changed just as much, if not more. “To tell you how dated I am, they still had a polio unit at North when I started to work,” she says.

The most significant shift Margaret says she’s seen is the smoking revolution. When she started at the hospital, people were allowed to smoke inside the hospital building in designated lounges. As medical professionals began to learn more about the effects of cigarettes, things drastically changed. Soon employees could only smoke if they had a private office in the building, and then they could only smoke if they went outside. Now, smoking is banned across the medical campus.

At lunch, Margaret and her fellow mailroom employees chat about health care a lot. Some ask if “Obamacare” is really so bad, others wonder aloud if it should really be nicknamed Obamacare. Margaret throws out a joke about contraceptives, “not that I need it,” she says. They all crack up.

¶ ¶ ¶


Employees working in the CoxHealth mailroom have seen their work environment change radically even in the past decade.

¶ ¶ ¶

Still, what Margaret’s noticed most in her half-century at Cox is how the relationship dynamics among those who work there, across all levels of seniority and all departments, have changed. Margaret says she can remember a time when the hospital administrators knew everyone by name and were involved in everything that was going on. Now, she rarely sees them.

“There’s some people that are — they acknowledge you, you know, and some people thank you for the job you do,” Margaret says. “And then there’s a lot of people that probably have no idea who we are.” She laughs, but she adds that sometimes that can be a sore subject with the staff in the mailroom.

But when it comes to knowing the current higher-ups, Margaret has time on her side. She’s known Steve Edwards, the current president and CEO at CoxHealth, since he was fresh out of college working over at North.

Priscilla says when everything was just at one hospital, the North building, everybody knew everybody. The staff was smaller, and most communication was done in person or over the phone, not electronically. “This was one big happy family,” Priscilla says. “In some ways, it still is.”

Literally speaking, a few members of Margaret’s family work for CoxHealth as well. Her brother is a surgery technician at Myers Center, and her daughter, Jackie, is a purchasing specialist at Cox South.

Jackie says people always ask if she’ll stay with Cox as long as her mom has. She swears she won’t, but says Margaret will stay in the mailroom as long as she still feels like getting up and coming to work. Margaret’s older than almost all of her colleagues, and she’s older than most of the American workforce.

She’s an outlier in another respect: She’s never changed jobs. The generation born just after Margaret’s holds an average of 11.3 jobs from age 18 to 46, according to a July study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jackie, who fits right into that baby boom generation, can’t believe how long her mom has been working in the same place.

“I think she’s crazy,” Jackie jokes. “I think she’s lost her mind. She needs to retire and get out of here.”

Maybe it’s because of the political season, maybe it’s because they work in a medical facility. Whatever it is, they are all very aware of what’s going on concerning health care.

“Everything in health care has gotten so expensive,” Margaret says. “And I’m sure a lot of people do without care that they need because they can’t afford it. And that’s a bad thing.”

Margaret knows a thing or two about medical bills herself. She suffered a heart attack in 2004, and was treated at the very hospital she works in. Now, though she’s had to make some adjustments in her life, she says she’s very healthy. “I was trying to do too much, more than I needed to be doing,” she says. “But it did surprise me, and it did make me think about a lot of things.”

¶ ¶ ¶


Margaret says she’ll continue coming to work as long as her health will allow. She’ll eventually retire, but she doesn’t think she can afford to do so just yet.

¶ ¶ ¶

Jackie and Priscilla both say that when Margaret retires there will be a lot of people very sad to see her go.

“I think it will take more than one to replace her. A wealth of knowledge will no longer be there,” Priscilla says. “People won’t have it at their fingertips like she has had it at the snap of her finger.”

Jackie says most people probably don’t realize how much of a part Margaret plays in keeping everything in motion. “They’re going to be in a pretty big mess because there’s not anybody that has the knowledge of the mailroom and the people that are here,” she says. “And I don’t think that they realize all of that.”

For Margaret, time has flown by. And although she’s worked in the same place for more than 50 years, she hasn’t been doing the same thing. With all the changes over the years and the people she’s met, Margaret says it often doesn’t feel like she’s been doing the same job at all.

She isn’t quite ready to retire — honestly, she says, she can’t afford it — but when she does, she’s sure to find other things to keep her busy. Margaret’s hobby has always been watching stock car racing, something she would love to do more of during retirement. But for now, she’s happy right where she is.

“I think if you like the job and you’re making suitable wages, and everything, then there’s nothing wrong with staying,” Margaret says.

“But it’s been …” she pauses, puts her hand to her mouth to think. “I guess it’s been a fun job or I probably wouldn’t still be here,” she says finally, with a laugh. And Margaret plans to keep working, and keep smiling, for as long as she feels like she can.

The Pride In Springfield, Pt. II.

Springfield’s LGBT community wants the protection of a nondiscrimination ordinance. If it passes, it’d be a historic moment in Springfield. But it’s a long road. More people want to have their say, to help define this moment. In the meantime, this often marginalized population is happy to have the city’s attention.

story by Stry.us / photos by Sarah Elms
published August 27, 2012

Lori McGuire wants to make her viewpoint known: She’s pro-ordinance, always has been. It’s something many people might not have known — or expected, considering her age of 82 — before her tear-jerking speech in city council’s chambers two weeks ago, the first public hearing on an amendment to Springfield’s nondiscrimination ordinance that would add legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

She has personal ties to the issue. Two of her best friends are lesbians, as is her granddaughter, and all three have faced intense opposition to their sexual orientation. [1]

On Monday, Aug. 13, McGuire took her turn at the podium and gave a three-minute speech in support of the amendment. She caused a stir in the room. Her speech seemed to touch people on both sides of the issue.

Hours later, at about 11 p.m., she walked alone to her car, got in and drove toward her Springfield home. As she pulled away from the city council building, she noticed a car following her closely. “I got a little nervous because they were tailgating me,” she says. “Then they pulled into the left turn lane next to me and threw something out the window.” She heard a soft crunch against her car door. She had been egged.

McGuire calmly drove home and washed the egg residue off the door. She says the two men probably see her as their enemy, but she doesn’t feel that way.

“I’m not the enemy, I’m the opposition,” she says. “There’s a difference between being the enemy and being the opposition.”

She says a little mutual respect goes a long way, as does a little understanding. The instance was jolting, but to her, there are more important things to worry about — like the proposed amendment at hand. “What’s sorta nasty is they came prepared,” McGuire says. “If they were able to blow off some steam, then fine. An egg’s not going to kill me.”

¶ ¶ ¶

The crowd outside City Hall on Monday, Aug. 27.
(At top) Rebecca Stober, left, and Tamara Bellings hold signs of support at Monday’s city council meeting. (Above) The crowd outside City Hall.

¶ ¶ ¶

A tense, heated mixture of emotions was swirling around outside the city council meeting that night. McGuire shakes off the egging instance and chalks it up to emotions getting the best of people. She won’t pay it any more mind; she’s more interested in what’s going on inside the council chambers tonight, two weeks later, as the city council has three options on the table.

The three options are to:

1.) Send the proposed amendment to a task force for further review. This option, proposed by Councilman Tom Bieker, would bring together a group of community stakeholders with the intent of fostering additional community discussion on the issue.

2.) Add it to the November ballot for a public vote.

3.) Vote on the measure. If the previous two measures fail to pass through the council, the meeting will proceed as scheduled, along with the four hours of scheduled speakers.

They’re options that more than a few communities around the country have faced in their respective deliberations on the topic. As of March 29, 2012, according to The Human Rights Campaign, “at least 163 cities and counties prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment ordinances that governed all public and private employers in those jurisdictions.”

University City, just outside St. Louis, was the first in Missouri to pass an ordinance into law. It did so in 2005. Since, five other cities in Missouri have done so, including St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia.

With a few exceptions, the majority of these laws nationwide have come within the past decade or so. And in more than a few cases, those laws have run up against one obstacle or another.

There was the case of Gainesville, Fla., where a group of social conservatives stonewalled the ordinance by suggesting men might use it as a means of entering women’s locker rooms. A similar discussion came up in Anchorage. [2] There have been suggestions that an ordinance would be a burden on a business to educate the employees and would force them to adjust to something they don’t support. There’s the argument that the ordinance infringes upon religious freedom. These are arguments that tend to appear each and every time the matter is broached in communities across the nation.

They’re arguments that have been debunked in cities across the country — and yet are getting discussed here in Springfield with this new ordinance.

There is much discussion planned for tonight at City Hall. The people of Springfield — more than 500 of them, according to the city’s count — have come downtown to see what’s going to happen with this ordinance. They begin gathering in the council chambers more than three hours before the meeting.

The news that the proposed amendment has been tabled filters through the crowd to where the supporters stand holding signs that draw honks and yells from passing drivers. There’s a girl with a swipe of green in her black hair. Her name is Sabrina Pacella. Her nose wrinkles and her eyes squint behind thick black frames when she asks for clarification as to what “tabling” means.

“They’re going to do the task force? F—,” she says, eyes widening. “Nothing’s going to happen now. People are just going to forget about it.” Half joking and half serious, but entirely frustrated, Sabrina despairs and says that she’s just going to move back to California.

A friend of Sabrina’s identifies herself as Marcella. She has darker skin, red hair and sunglasses to shield the glare as the sun falls lower in the sky. Dressed in drag, she says, “Screw that, I want to stay here.” Because if there’s the opportunity to affect change, she goes onto say, what better place to do it? This is a place where change is necessary.

“But to see s— like this keep happening is so depressing,” Sabrina responds.

Dave Myers, a spokesperson for the conservative Live Free Springfield group, gets up on the steps of the city council and addresses the people gathered outside, the people wearing those round yellow stickers that declare opposition to the proposal. He’s taking it a step further, wearing a yellow polo shirt. He says the ordinance has been tabled, and “the issue will no longer be covered at the city council.”

He goes on to tell the onlookers it’s because of their involvement that the motion has been tabled. He points at the mass of people and exclaims, “You did this!” It’s met with applause toward the front of the crowd. From where Sabrina is at the back, just in front of the sidewalk that runs beside the road, among other supporters, there’s mostly quiet.

“I think they’re already involved enough,” Sabrina says.

The announcement that the issue is tabled prompts a mass exodus from inside, adding even more bodies to the already overflowing front lawn of city hall. Groups begin to move toward their cars. The excitement, for now, is over.

Stephanie Perkins, the deputy director of LGBT rights advocacy group PROMO, is down the sidewalk, just off the steps of City Hall. She’s just finished up a TV interview and doesn’t look nearly as crushed as the earlier cheers from the crowd adorned in yellow might lead you to believe.

“We’re a little bit discouraged just because there’s still going to be this time period where people are not protected,” she says. “But we’re really hopeful moving forward because we really trust that this task force will be made up of people who can represent their organizations and their communities as respectfully and as civilly as possible, and maybe we can come to some sort of an agreement about how to move forward in the best way possible.”

For Stephanie and many others in Springfield’s LGBT community, the fact that this city in southwest Missouri is talking about this nondiscrimination ordinance — that they’re even having a serious discussion about equal protection for sexual orientation and gender identity — qualifies as a milestone. True, their desired destination isn’t in sight. But they’ve shown up and spoken in public already. They’ve come this far. They don’t want to turn back now.

“This has been part of their life for their entire lives,” she says. “For many people who have lost their jobs and lost their homes and been denied access to services, this is a daily, daily problem. So, I think for many, many people, this is part of their life, and it will continue to be part of their life until this law is passed and they have some sort of recourse.”

Councilman Tom Bieker’s motion, which passed Monday night and ended council discussion of the issue for the moment, calls for a task force made up of community stakeholders that will allow open dialogue. Stephanie welcomes the formation of the task force.

In a way, it’s a blessing for the LGBT community. Had the city council voted for the ordinance, opposition groups are already mobilized enough to collect signatures to move the ordinance to the November ballot. Had the ordinance been put to a public vote — and with it being a Presidential election this November — the ordinance would likely have been defeated.

Instead, the task force could be a positive way forward. Stephanie hopes the task force will bring a diverse group of citizens together for a productive conversation and clarify bits of misinformation she says clouded the issue over the past few weeks. While there will likely be a “cooling down” period for the issue before the task force is formed, Stephanie is already encouraging people to keep sharing their stories in any way possible.

This isn’t the end, she insists.

“After the task force is over, we’re still going to potentially have another ordinance that the city council will potentially vote on, and we’re going to have public hearings again,” she says.

Springfield has made this issue a priority over the past few weeks. Right now, people are paying attention to a group that often feels vulnerable or marginalized. Stephanie believes that all of this will only further strengthen the LGBT community. Now that they’re in the public eye, they have the chance to get their voices heard.

“I hope they can see that there are people fighting for their rights and they should feel empowered to fight for their own rights, and that people are listening,” Stephanie says. “Our city is finally taking notice and finally making it a priority to fight for their rights and finally making a task force for the rights.”

Whatever happens next will be history for Springfield — and a starting point for other communities across America.

“This issue is very, very important to Springfield, just as it’s incredibly important to all cities across the country, all states across the country,” she says. “And this isn’t an issue that can be just brushed aside. This is an issue that affects people’s lives.

“This is not a stop sign.”

Stry.us reporters Jordan Hickey, Sarah Elms and Zach Crizer contributed to this story.

The Pride In Springfield, Pt. I.

The community of gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual citizens is a minority in Springfield. But these days, they’re very vocal. This month, they’re among those asking Springfield for protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But the road to legal protection hasn’t been easy.

story by Bari Bates / photos by Bari Bates and Sarah Elms
published August 27, 2012

The City Council meeting begins as they all do — with the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer. This evening, Councilman Jerry Compton asks for grace in listening and clarity of speech, then adds a comment that sets the tone for the evening:

“History will judge the outcome of this issue.”

Council meetings rarely see such turnouts. The main chamber reaches capacity more than an hour before the meeting even begins. People are herded into hallways, side rooms and the lobby. If they signed up to speak, they wait their turn. They’ll be waiting for a while, as 77 people have something to say. Even with the building filled to capacity, nearly 200 people are left outside.

There are a shocking number of people at City Hall on this night. Springfield’s come out because because of an ordinance sitting before the City Council — an ordinance that, depending on your viewpoint, either represents a small step towards equality for all or a major violation of the community’s unwritten ethical rules.

Current law in the city prohibits discrimination based on factors like age or disability. Locals can take legal action against anyone who denies them housing, jobs or services based on a single aspect of their identity. But sexual orientation or gender identity isn’t among the protected categories.

This ordinance would add that to the law, protecting members of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community — and more importantly, recognizing that community’s rights.

But here in the Bible Belt, where same-sex marriage has found significant opposition, such an ordinance won’t be voted into law without a fight.

Here, and throughout the night, there’s a lot of mention of history — of how history will look back on these proceedings, of whether, perhaps, more tolerant generations will wonder what took so long. Minority ethnic groups have long since received their due protection. Women can vote and own property. Small victories are happening every month for minority groups, it seems.

For the LGBT community in the Ozarks, this is merely a step towards acceptance. This community isn’t very visible in Springfield. Over the years, they’ve often been shouted down by messages of hate.

But on this night, the matter at stake is one of civil rights. Tonight, they stand up — publicly, many for the first time — for themselves.

¶ ¶ ¶

A sampling of the signs in protest and support of the amendment, seen outside of city hall the night of the first public hearing.
(Above) Signs in protest and support of the amendment, seen outside of city hall the night of the first public hearing. (At top) A group of Springfieldians show their support for the amendment.

¶ ¶ ¶

As the public hearing begins, people make their way to the podium as their names are called. Most take calm, measured steps and politely smile at the mayor and eight city council members in front of them.

There are two women seated just to the left of the podium. One wears a bright blue bow tie with her dark hair cropped short and bangs swept just above her glasses. She is very much on the forefront when it comes to LGBT [1] rights in Springfield. For the past few years, getting this issue heard in this very public forum has been her personal mission. Her name is Stephanie Perkins, deputy director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization, and next to her is her partner, Amanda Long. They’re here in support of the ordinance.

It’s true that this is not the biggest issue that their community — the LGBT community — is currently facing. They’d like for this non-discrimination ordinance to be statewide. They’d like to be able to walk down the street hand-in-hand and not feel the heat of stares wash over them. They’d like for gay marriage to exist in Missouri and for it to exist in Springfield — Stephanie and Amanda would like to be married, and they will be in Iowa next year. They’d like so many things, but ultimately they’d like to be considered equal. This ordinance doesn’t do all of that, but it’s a start.

So when her name is called, Stephanie goes to the microphone and starts with statistics. She tells the council that 42 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents to a Williams Institute survey said they experienced employment discrimination, making an ordinance like this particularly meaningful. More than that, Stephanie talks about the cities that already have ordinances like this in place.

Nationally, there are more than 160 cities or counties that have passed such an ordinance. Nine municipalities in Missouri have already done so. Stephanie assures the council that those cities have learned how to adapt to such an ordinance. If they can do it, so can Springfield.

“All of them have figured out the procedures to make it possible,” she says. “All of them have figured out the procedures to make it successful. And in all of those cities, the sky has not fallen.”

The ordinance allows everyone a fair shot, she says. A fair shot to be a productive citizen, a fair shot at housing, a fair shot at employment. Though she is reading from a card, her words are not without emotion. She is finally in front of city council, after months and months of preparation and discussion.

Stephanie is fairly certain that the ordinance will pass. She can go through the numbers and tell you she’s very confident she has the necessary five votes for a majority, pretty certain that she has six, feels maybe OK about seven, and knows that eight votes in favor of the ordinance won’t happen. This wouldn’t come to a vote in city council if Stephanie didn’t think that the votes were there.

¶ ¶ ¶

Stephanie Perkins, deputy director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization, has been at the forefront of the push to include sexual orientation and gender identity in Springfield’s nondiscrimination ordinance.
Stephanie Perkins, deputy director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT advocacy organization, has been at the forefront of the push to include sexual orientation and gender identity in Springfield’s nondiscrimination ordinance.

¶ ¶ ¶

Stephanie is standing in the middle of the GLO Center [2] at a Tuesday night GALAGXY [3] meeting — a program that provides a safe space for more than 20 LGBT youths, ages 13 to 21. They’ve covered their topics for the night and moved on to general announcements. It’s a few weeks before the Aug. 13 council meeting. This week, Stephanie has “super-duper exciting news.” She talks with her hands, making big sweeping gestures as she closes the laptop in front of her. She’s excited. There’s going to be an ordinance coming before council, she says.

“If you’re fired or not hired based on your orientation or gender identity,” she says, “or you’re evicted or not given access to housing, or if you’re kicked out of your hotel or coffee shop or city bus or something based on someone thinking you’re gay or trans, you can actually file a complaint with the commission, and they’ll do an investigation.”

To the people in the room, this is an exciting moment. If the ordinance passes, it’d be a small gesture from the city towards recognizing the rights of the LGBT community.

This is the thing that Stephanie has been working toward ever since she first started meeting with the council all of two-and-a-half years ago, when she sat down with Councilman Doug Burlison and started explaining why this was important. In a sense, she’s following a recipe — a well-tried and widely employed means of gaining support. It involves meeting with the council members behind closed doors, explaining exactly what something like this would achieve, so that they’re able to explain it when the time comes for public hearings.

Then come the actual meetings, and the final decision from council.

Unless the council decides to put the ordinance to a public vote. If it goes to a vote, the LGBT community knows that they will lose, and decisively.

They hope it does not come to a public vote.

Stephanie knows from watching other Missouri communities pass similar ordinances which issues and questions might crop up in Springfield. She is ready with answers.

There’s the issue of religious freedom. Some churches say that the law would require them to hire LGBT workers — even though the ordinance explicitly says otherwise. There’s the issue of how a transgender employee might be a burden on a business because of all that would fall on the owner or manager in terms of figuring out the paperwork and name changes, educating other employees and holding sensitivity training sessions.

And then there’s this last thing.

It’s a scare tactic of sorts, Stephanie says, and she’s seen it pop up in other towns. There’s this fear that when you pass gender identity laws, it opens a loophole — that now men will be able to put on a woman’s dress and go into a bathroom and molest little girls, or men will be able to put on a woman’s dress and hang out in a women’s locker room. But she says the truth is that there really aren’t any documented cases of that happening. This ordinance is not something that changes a criminal code or anything like that — it just allows people to use the appropriate bathrooms.

But this evening at the GLO Center, she’s not saying any of this. All she tells the young crowd is that this ordinance is coming up, and that if they can come — even if they don’t want to take the microphone, even if they can only come for one of the two nights scheduled for public hearings — and show solidarity, it would be really great.

She knows what might happen when the council meets to hear opinions on the ordinance. There will be opposition to the ordinance.

“There will be people there who will say awful, awful things and you just have to remember that those are the people who … don’t know you,” she says to the young members of Springfield’s LGBT community. “And there will be people there who will say awesome things. Listen to those people. They’re educated. They know what they’re talking about.

“But again: Celebrate. This is awesome. This has never happened in Springfield before — this is a very, very cool thing. And if it doesn’t pass this time, then … we have time on our side. And it will only get better.”

¶ ¶ ¶

It’s the night of the council meeting. A man comes up to the podium, voicing his disagreement with the ordinance. He fears that it would force Christian business owners to unfairly hire gays out of fear of litigation. Here, an argument surfaces that will be repeated several times during the next few hours: Christian businesses shouldn’t be forced to hire people whose lifestyles they don’t agree with — and here, the language varies greatly. Some use the term sinful, or sodomy, while others state a polite disagreement with what they view as an individual choice. Many at the meeting say this ordinance would infringe on their rights as business owners. In the background, Amanda can be seen shaking her head. Stephanie, who records several people speaking in opposition to the ordinance, is far less emotive, though at times you can see her biting the inside of her cheek.

Amanda admits that she wears her heart on her sleeve. She couldn’t do what Stephanie does for a living, she says. She doesn’t think that she could put herself in a position to hear so much hate. She says she thinks she would just cry all the time. But Stephanie hears this a lot, terms like the “gay agenda,” which are thrown around and up and down in efforts to warn the Christian public of the gay community’s “militant” uprising.

There’s a distinct sense of fear among those who are against the ordinance. Several people warn that there’s a possibility of extreme violence if this ordinance were to pass, citing the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., as an example of what would come.

But later, a schoolteacher — one with 32 years of classroom experience — steps to the podium. Her fear is a different one. She tells city council that she taught students who were the recipients of some of the same kinds of hurtful things heard throughout the night here. And she’s afraid they are going to give up on Springfield.

“You have a room full of brave young people here tonight,” she says, “who are willing to put themselves in front of that kind of meanness in order to stand up for who we should be as a community.”

These people — the LGBT community — are leaving Springfield, she tells them. “They are talented, many of them. They are very bright, many of them. They are creative. They have a great deal to offer our community. And if we don’t stand up for them, they will leave and they will take those talents and they’ll go someplace else, and Springfield will be a much less rich place for the rest of us to live if they go.”

¶ ¶ ¶

And then there’s yet another type of fear in the room, one that each member of the LGBT community deals with on a daily basis. When Amanda’s name is called, she moves past Stephanie to reach the aisle to get to the podium. She speaks briefly — hardly 50 seconds — and tells city council that she’s still afraid to have Stephanie, her partner and the woman who she soon plans to marry, bring her lunch at work.

When Amanda is finished speaking, she sits back down, momentarily half-embracing Stephanie, or at least as much as possible when sitting side-by-side on a hard wooden bench. She runs her fingers through the back of Stephanie’s short hair, before settling back in her seat, with her arms crossed on her chest, as if preparing to physically shield herself from the words coming from opponents of the ordinance.

Another supporter says that he’s speaking on behalf of his friend, who was fired from her job because she was a lesbian. She was afraid to speak tonight, and asked that he use a fake name for her. He calls her Stacy. Even with all of the support being voiced for the ordinance tonight, it’s impossible not to wonder how many have refrained from speaking publicly out of fear that they could be fired or evicted on the basis of identifying as lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual, with no formal way to contest it.

¶ ¶ ¶

Inside the GLO Center, a home away from home for many of Springfield’s LGBT community
Inside the GLO Center, a home away from home for many of Springfield’s LGBT community.

¶ ¶ ¶

A man named Charles Abernathy is called to the podium. He’s a full-time student who works 40 hours a week and volunteers “like it’s a part-time job.” He also happens to be gay. He has just as much control over how old he is and the color of his skin as he does his sexuality, he tells city council.

“How can someone’s existence infringe on someone’s civil liberties?” he asks the opponents of the ordinance. “The [underlying] issue here is that the opponents do not want to recognize the existence of LGBT individuals who are contributing to our community because that would give value to our existence and that value would give us worth, that worth would give us the right to work without fear, to live in our homes without fear, and to have access to a public accommodation without fear.”

¶ ¶ ¶

Charles is one of the many volunteers who work at the GLO Center, which is the hub of the gay community in Springfield. The facility has been around since 1997. Charles is a facilitator with the GALAGXY program at the GLO Center. The 20 or so youths in the program come to the center just to hang out. To talk about everything that young adults talk about. Things like dating. School. Food. Sex. Suicide.

The kind of stuff, they’ll all note, most kids talk about.

Each day starts at three in the afternoon, dinner’s at six, with a meeting thrown in somewhere between the two. Meetings start with standard-enough introductions, led by two co-leaders of the group who nod in recognition to familiar faces, welcoming new ones. When the new faces show up, Jim House is the one who greets them at the door, introduces them to other youth in Springfield like them, shows them they aren’t alone.

Jim House is an institution here. He’s been here since the beginning of the center. He remembers how it used to be in Springfield. He’s been here since 1959. He went to Drury University and decided to make this place his home. He didn’t come out until he was 35.

“I mean, you know, a lot of times people my age, you thought you were the only person like you. You know?” Jim says. “The only other people you knew were gay dressed like women, or were real feminine. And that wasn’t me, so I thought that there wasn’t anyone else like me. And then you find out, well, there are a lot of them.

“It’s totally different now than it was even 15 years ago — the kids have a lot more support than they used to have. You know, in school, their parents… a lot of it’s changed. And the news. You watch the news, and people are getting married in New York, and for God’s sake, Iowa. You know? And it’s just like, that was unheard of. I really never thought I’d see the day when gay marriage would be legal. I just never thought … I thought I wouldn’t live that long. And now I think I probably will.”

Some of the young members of the GLO Center are lucky, and have supportive parents and attend schools where they can be out. Others are less so, and have been kicked out of their homes, or left school, and have come here needing help finding emergency housing. The Center is not able to house anyone in here, but they can point kids in the right direction — and the word “kid” here does nothing to describe the maturity and bravery it has taken them to come out and be part of the community at such a young age.

There are a handful of facilitators to guide the programs each week, and to guide the organized chaos of youth meetings. All of the facilitators are here for their own reasons, but they hold the common belief that they’re able to give back to the LGBT community, and offer something that maybe they didn’t have growing up.

There was even a reunion last October — Jim invited people back through the group’s Facebook page — to see how the center’s grown through the years.

“That’s when you really get to see, you know, that I’ve done some good,” Jim says. “And they come back and they tell you, ‘I never told you, but you really made a big difference in my life.’ And that always floors me, because you don’t think you did, but then you really did, and they’ll say, ‘Do you remember that time…’ and of course it’s something minor that I probably sat down and talked to them about.

“It’s really interesting to see how they’ve come along and what they’ve done. And I think this place really had a lot to do with what they’ve done and building up their confidence and feeling comfortable with themselves.”

The city has grown up, too. In June, the LGBT community held its annual Pride Day, right out on the square in downtown Springfield. They held a parade and a drag show, and hundreds of members of the community came out to participate.

Around the square, many looked on — but hardly anyone came to protest the festivities.

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Pride celebrations on the Square in June.
Pride celebrations on the Square in June.

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There are visible deep breaths in the front row, as if to calm racing hearts, beating and swelling when members of their own community give voice to the thoughts and feelings they might not have found the words for yet. Charles is one of those voices tonight. He reminds council that its choice is whether an inherent quality should be the basis for discrimination.

“I’m a human being,” another ordinance supporter explains. As a lesbian, she’d rather not rely on an ordinance to protect her. She’d rather that she wasn’t part of a protected class, as she says it makes her feel like an endangered species.

“I think that bears repeating: I’m a human being.”

Such explanations fall on deaf ears among some in the crowd. One many questions whether enough studies have been done in Springfield to elicit an ordinance. Another man compares the condoning of homosexuality to condoning the use of crack. One woman speaks of case studies done on twins, in order to prove that there’s no genetic basis for homosexuality.

The council continues steadily through the never-ending list of speakers. Though they’re already several hours into the meeting, no one seems terribly fatigued.

Toward the end of the evening, a petite older woman with white hair approaches the podium. She doesn’t wear any stickers on her blouse, and perhaps because of her age, it’s almost expected that the words to come out of her mouth will reiterate the message so many have shared today: Love the sinner, hate the sin. She adjusts the microphone, bringing it down to her height at the podium, and begins to read off the sheet of paper she has in her hands. Behind her, you can nearly see LGBT supporters begin to tune the woman out, even before a word is spoken.

Her name is Lori McGuire. She looks across the row of city council members, and asks them to imagine being called an abomination based on the color of their eyes. Stephanie leans forward in her seat, and rests her elbows on her knees to listen closely.

Lori’s granddaughter is a lesbian, and she believes in justice. She emphasizes her words and raises her voice, punctuating each word with a head nod. “Sexual. Preference. Is. Not. A. Choice.”

She has along a copy of the speech she gave at her granddaughter’s wedding, and she reads it aloud:

“Sure, some of the people you love will not understand. Some still have dreams for you that you can’t fulfill because they don’t fit who you are. Yet, is it fair to expect them, parents and other family members and old friends, to change something they were raised with and deeply believe in? What to do? I would suggest the answer is simply to understand them and accept them as you long for them to accept you and to never stop loving them. If we could only live by the golden rule, life here on earth could be far closer to paradise. It sounds too simple, yet it’s so incredibly demanding. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Demanding, you bet, because it demands true empathy. Putting yourself in their shoes even when it feels like their shoes are killing you. The hardest part is doing it quietly within yourselves and without withholding your love.”

And here, for the first time, Lori’s voice cracks, but she pushes on. Behind her, Stephanie wipes a tear from her eye, adjusting her glasses. Her bottom lip trembles, and crinkles with the effort of holding back more tears. She leans back in her chair, toward Amanda. This part of the woman’s address is far less for city council than it is for the benefit of those sitting behind her.

“Then sometimes magic happens. Folks who feel loved and accepted just as they are sometimes return the favor,” Lori says. She says that she and her husband have been married for 54 years, and that they’ve made it work, despite some disagreements. It keeps things interesting, she says.

She thanks city council, and walks away from the podium. After each speaker, Mayor Bob Stephens has been asking if there are any questions, and the answer is usually no. But here, Councilman Jeff Seifried asks what the secret is to not arguing after 54 years of marriage. Lori turns back toward the council and throws a hand at them, as if wiping away the question.

“We’re just nuts about each other,” is her answer. There’s laughter throughout the chamber, and the mood breaks, if only for a moment.

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Eventually the meeting comes to a close. The much-reduced crowd [4] starts to filter out down the stairs to the lobby and out the doors. Outside, it’s been dark for quite a while already. The television stations have filed their reports and packed up their equipment. Just beyond the stone steps leading down from the doors of city hall, there’s a minor clash between two groups of people — those in support and those opposed. When Stephanie and some friends walk down the steps, they immediately move off to the side to wait for the last of the people still inside.

They already know that they’ll have to come back two weeks later — on Aug. 27 — and they know that they’ll hear more of the same that night. They know there will be efforts to push the ordinance to a public vote, and they know what the outcome of a public vote would be.

If it does not go to a vote — if council decides to vote on the matter itself — the ordinance could be decided then.

They know that this is only one step. But they’ll keep trying to take this step, and then the next. This is their home. They have jobs here. They have families here. They have lives here. They like Springfield. They’re proud of Springfield.

They say they just want Springfield to be proud of them.

This story continues with Part II, a Stry.us report from the Aug. 27 council meeting.

Starting From Scratch.

For the past nine years, men from across the country have come to Springfield’s Victory Trade School looking to the culinary arts for a new lease on life. What they’ve found are not only the skills necessary for a promising career, but the confidence they need to stay on a straight path.

story by Sarah Elms / photos by Sarah Elms
published August 24, 2012

It’s just before 4 a.m. at the corner of Commercial and Boonville on the north side of Springfield, Mo. Everything is still, calm and quiet. If you peek through the glass windows of the first floor of the building that sits on the corner, you’ll see an empty buffet, chairs placed upside down on tables and yesterday’s specials still listed on the whiteboard.

Two stories up, the early-morning silence is punctured by buzzing and ringing coming from the student dorm rooms that line one half of the hallway. The students have another busy day ahead of them. They need to be awake and downstairs by 4:30 to prep and open the restaurant for breakfast at 6.

For many, this schedule is a drastic change. They don’t fit the mold of traditional students. Before they came here, most had been struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, some were living in shelters, all were lacking the skills necessary to land a full-time job. They are all males, ranging in age from their early 20s to late 50s, and they’ve come to Springfield to start a new life.

The restaurant, called Cook’s Kettle, is student-run as part of Victory Trade School’s culinary program. Victory Trade School is a non-profit project of Springfield’s Victory Mission, whose mantra is “eliminating poverty from the inside out.” The mission is a non-denominational Christian ministry that provides food, housing, clothing and household items.

Through the Victory Trade School, it is also able to offer GED classes and Bible-based recovery programs for both genders — PREP [1] for men and New Life for women — focused on spiritual wellness and vocational training, all of which are designed to help men and women struggling to get back on their feet. The school’s most popular opportunity, however, is its year-long, nationally accredited culinary curriculum for men.

Cook’s Kettle is open from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday. Students rotate through various roles in the restaurant over the course of the year — waiting tables, running the cash register, prepping food and creating specials — learning the skills it takes to work in the culinary profession. When 1 o’clock rolls around, the students eat lunch, clean up the restaurant and kitchen, and then head back upstairs for an afternoon of class.

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Patrons enjoy a quick lunch break at Victory Trade School's second "learning laboratory," RESTAURANT NAME.
(Above) Patrons enjoy a quick lunch break at Victory Trade School’s second learning laboratory, The Branch Bistro & Catering. (At top) Executive Chef Brian Romano and recent Victory Trade School graduate Eric Wallace hang out in the kitchen.

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The Victory Mission has been active in Springfield for 35 years, serving individuals and families who for one reason or another are finding it difficult to meet their basic needs. But up until nine years ago, something important was missing from its services: education.

So, the mission acquired property on Commercial Street and got to work establishing a school.

Victoria Queen, who has been president of Victory Trade School since its opening in September 2003, says when she was first developing the concept for the school, she didn’t know if culinary arts was going to be the main focus. “At one time, I had seven different projects that people brought and said, ‘Hey, we want to do this,’ and somewhere in all of that, culinary just kept coming up,” Queen says. “I was like, let’s do one thing, and let’s do it really good.”

It started out small, but the school grew quickly. Just 20 days after Queen opened the doors for classes, Cook’s Kettle was up and running. Now, the culinary program includes two restaurants — what the school calls its “learning laboratories” — a greenhouse, a catering program and a constant flow of students.

Most of the students have a history of drug or alcohol addiction, and they must complete a recovery program before enrolling in the school. The school has open enrollment, so students can come in at any time of the year.

Before students can enter any of Victory Trade School’s programs — whether it’s culinary, PREP or New Life — they must go through a one-month candidacy period. Candidacy serves as a trial-run for students, to make sure the school is the place where they want to be, and to get them back into the academic mindset. During this month, they take basic core classes, such as creative writing, communications and nutrition, and begin their internships at one of the learning laboratories.

Executive Chef Brian Romano, dean of culinary arts at Victory Trade School, says once the students go through candidacy, the instructors sit down as a group and create a plan of action to help each student succeed. He says the school’s greatest strength is the individualized attention that instructors are able to give to their students. “We have close to a three-to-one student-teacher ratio,” Romano says, “which is ridiculous.” [2]

Romano has been in the culinary business since 1987 and has worked in conference centers and resorts across the country. He’s a certified executive chef through the American Culinary Federation and has a degree in restaurant management. He says the point of attaining these credentials was to get to a place where he was actually teaching.

“It’s teaching, it’s a restaurant, it’s open, it’s practical, it’s hands-on education — all those things were very appealing to me,” Romano says. “So that’s how I got to this place.”

The culinary curriculum includes seven required National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) classes: food production, marketing, customer service, serve safe [3], cost control, human resources, and management. There is a NRAEF final exam issued for each class that students must pass in order to receive their certification, but all the coursework leading up to the exam is dictated by the school. This setup gives instructors the ability to tailor lectures to the pace of their students.

Outside of the classroom, students complete internships with one of the school’s two restaurants, Cook’s Kettle or The Branch Bistro & Catering, where they learn firsthand the ins and outs of food service.

“There’s three hours of practical work to every one hour of sitting in a seat in the classroom,” Queen says. “So it really is a lot of hands-on learning.”

When the school first started, before its accreditation, the culinary program was only a six-month cycle. Instructors soon learned that six months was not enough and extended the curriculum to a full year. The staff says students find jobs almost immediately upon graduation; restaurants, catering services and conference centers regularly call the school looking for chefs.

“In many respects, when our students leave here, they are more prepared for positions in food service than even a lot of culinary graduates,” Romano says. “That’s my opinion as a culinary graduate.”

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Victoria Queen, president and founder of Victory Trade School
Victoria Queen, president of Victory Trade School.

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Victory Trade School’s curriculum has gained national recognition in recent years. In 2010, the National Restaurant Association chose Cook’s Kettle as Missouri’s state finalist for its Restaurant Neighbor Award, last year the school won World Magazine’s sixth annual Hope Award for Effective Compassion [4], and this year Queen has been asked to join Missouri’s Coordinating Board for Higher Education.

“We do get a lot of kudos for how we’ve set everything up and what it is, you know, and how we do adhere to what our accrediting body wants,” Queen says. “But a lot of times, people right here in town are like, I didn’t even know you were there.”

Queen says she thinks part of people’s lack of awareness about the school is that it is often overshadowed by its long-established parent company, Victory Missions. But out in the education world, Victory Trade School is well known.

Eric Wallace heard about Victory Trade School from a rescue mission out in his home state of California. He was out of a job, and the Merced County Rescue Mission asked Wallace, What is your dream or goal? “And I said I wanted to be a cook, and they said, Well, we could send you to a place, and they could help you,” Wallace says.

At first, Wallace was nervous about leaving California and his family; he’d never been out of the state. Now he’s been in Springfield for two years, and he’s not planning on leaving anytime soon. He completed Victory Trade School’s culinary program as one of its star students. After graduating this past spring, Wallace spent the summer as an assistant chef at a Boy Scout camp. He’s now back at Victory Trade School, this time working full-time as a prep cook at The Branch Bistro & Catering.

“It’s like a magnet,” Wallace says of the place. “It just pulls you back.”

Queen says Wallace’s transformation was exactly what she wants to see from students. When he first came to Victory Trade School, he was anxious and reserved; you would never know it to see him now. Wallace is one of the friendliest faces at the school. “He would just kind of look at the floor, but he just really came right out of that,” Queen says. “All the students love him.”

She says it’s common to see anxiety in students when they first arrive, which is why instructors not only focus on culinary skills, but on teaching interpersonal skills and building confidence.

Wallace says the schedule is tiring, but worth it in the long run. “There was times I wanted to quit, but I didn’t. I had a certain person that wouldn’t let me quit,” Wallace says. That certain person was the front-of-house [5] manager at Cook’s Kettle. “He basically took me under his wing,” Wallace says.

It isn’t uncommon for these students to gravitate toward a mentor. For many who go through programs at Victory Trade School, the skills they learn are just as important as the people they meet.

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Students prepare two specials each day at the Cook's Kettle restaurant, one sandwich and one chef plate.
The daily specials, prepared by Victory Trade School students, are displayed at the front of the Cook’s Kettle restaurant.

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Although the school has been open since 2003, it still has a lot of room to grow. Currently, the culinary program is only available to male students, although its accreditation doesn’t bar either gender from attaining certification. The only reason the program is not currently open to women is because the school does not have the necessary facilities to house female students.

Queen says they’re working on it, but for now the school only offers the New Life discipleship program for women.

Kara Pyle has been a part of the New Life program since December, and she says she’s loved every minute of it. Before New Life, Pyle was addicted to drugs and had her children taken away from her. Now, she has her kids back and her life back on track.

“It’s really busy, but it’s really good because when you come in, the majority of us were on drugs, and so, you know, when we get bored that’s when most of our triggers [go off],” she says. “So we’re busy with classes and work and then classes again … but if we can run for our drugs, we can run to be sober. That’s how I see it.”

Pyle’s been sober for more than a year, and she credits that to a renewed faith in God. New Life includes a lot of Bible-focused classes, but internships are part of the program as well. Each student spends time working at the mission’s food pantry, its daycare, its thrift store (called Victory Vintage) and at The Branch Bistro & Catering.

“I’ve got lots of skills now. A lot,” Pyle says. “If I can get through this, I can make it out there. No problem. Because this is harder than out there. It really is.”

Pyle’s favorite job so far has been working at the restaurant. She says if the school could find housing that would enable it to open the culinary program to women, she’d do it in a heartbeat, especially since she wouldn’t have to pay anything out of pocket.

The Victory Trade School participates in Title IV Pell Grants, but not in a loan program. Anything that the Pell Grants don’t cover, the school funds through scholarship programs. “We don’t want our students to get saddled with loans,” Queen says.

Some people say it’s too good to be true, but Queen reminds them they are working for every penny of their education. Students say the hard work is all worth it, though. They are learning the skills they need to be self-sufficient.

“It’s an experience itself,” Wallace says with a smile. “It’s just good to come out here and learn what you love. I like to cook, I just hate to clean up after myself.”