By Sarah Pope
Holmes Garden Neighborhood strives to offer residents a way to thrive
There is more than just a garden growing at Holmes Garden Neighborhood at Bannister and Holmes in South Kansas City. Although a small community garden with a few tidy beds planted, tended and decorated by the neighbors serves as a focal point—and possibly a metaphor for the neighborhood—the real work is happening beneath the surface.
Two tireless women, Estelle Lewis and Denise Hart, have been working for years to improve the community at Holmes Garden, which includes 100 families residing in duplex homes along Bannister Road between Holmes and Troost.
Lewis and Hart formally combined forces after a summer storm ravaged their neighborhood in 2022. Once power was restored, the neighbors were left to clean up debris, including downed poles, strewn trash and large branches.
Frustrated by the lack of city support, Hart and Lewis formed the Holmes Garden Neighborhood Association to help them command resources in a way they hadn’t been able to before. As soon as they formed the group they began reaching out to local officials and other elected representatives.
“All of the sudden people started coming out (to help),” Hart said.
Now Hart and Lewis are leading a larger community effort for residents in Holmes Garden Neighborhood. They will focus on strengthening families, empowering the community and fostering social connections.
Lewis and Hart are each invested in the neighborhood in different ways. Lewis is an investor who owns seven of the duplex units in the neighborhood; Hart is a longtime resident and president of the neighborhood association. Once they had formed the neighborhood association, Hart began taking a variety of classes to support her community work, earning six certificates in six months. Among her focus areas were mental health first aid, neighborhood leadership, community building, and community and civic engagement. Recently she won a grant for the neighborhood to build a bus stop for neighborhood children to wait for their buses in a centralized and shaded space.
On July 26, Hart and Lewis hosted an event with Big Picture Learning, a non-profit that works to support equitable and student-centered learning and provides a forum for educators to learn about the successes and struggles in their neighborhood. Both Hart and Lewis addressed the group of more than 20 educators. Julie Holland, a representative from Parent Leadership Training Institute (PLTI), shared an overview of her organization, which provides a civic and leadership course for parents and caregivers to better advocate for their children.
Crystal Eckles, program director with Big Picture Learning, said it can be hard for teachers to know exactly what students are going through at home. Hearing directly from community leaders at Holmes Garden Neighborhood was beneficial.
“It really takes a village—parents, teachers, schools, churches, community,” she said. “Everyone has to wrap around that child to get them where they want to be.”
Lewis is concerned about the future of the neighborhood and how things might turn out for residents if the neighborhood association doesn’t advocate for them. Most residents rent their homes. Corporate landlords have begun to move in, Lewis says, pushing average rents from $500 to $1200 per month.
“Not that we don’t believe in making money, but you have to do it in a mindful way,” she said. “We have to bring back the village. That’s what we hear in our community. We lost 17 kids to eviction this summer. How can they be ready to learn this fall?”
With education in mind, Hart and Lewis are building a resource center for the neighborhood with book nooks and space for before and after school learning. Current neighborhood resources include the community garden and a Little Free Library that is supported by Lead to Read KC, a local non-profit. The neighborhood has also joined forces with KC Scholars to make certificate programs available to residents at no cost. They celebrated a resident’s recent completion of a phlebotomy certificate, even allowing her to do her practice “sticks” on them to finalize her course.
“She ‘stuck’ the whole neighborhood,” Hart said, laughing, before she switched gears back to the challenges the neighborhood faces. “We want to instill the proper way of living, not surviving. It’s tiresome. It takes time and effort but you cannot give up.”
After the morning session, Holmes Garden Neighborhood hosted a block party for residents and invited the educators to join them. Kids convened at the future site of the resource center to have snacks, participate in face painting and play summer games, like tug of war.
Crystal Everett, a real world learning manager with Kansas City Public Schools, said she enjoyed being a tourist in her own city and attending the day’s events. She feels invested in the progress at Holmes Garden Neighborhood as a Kansas City, Mo., resident and appreciated learning from Hart and Lewis with their ‘boots on the ground’ perspective.
“One of the biggest things we miss as a community is that we think of policy but we forget about the people,” Everett said “The people know what they need.”