Sister Janice Thome in her other office at a local school (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)
The billboards that dot the long gray line of Interstate 70 west from Kansas City tried to lure me to tourist towns that promised Wild West shows, lots of sunflowers and even an Oz Winery.
But I wasn’t wearing blue gingham or ruby red sneakers, so I ignored the signs, scooted down Kansas 156 and didn’t stop until I reached Garden City.
This town of roughly 30,600 doesn’t promise pretty sunsets or cowboy shows or any Technicolor treats. It’s a hardworking town, with most of the people employed by the big local business: meat.
Whether it’s in the feedlots clustered in this southwest Kansas area that includes Dodge City and Liberal, or the big plants like Tyson, most of the folks here do the difficult work of turning cattle into beef.
That means low-wage jobs – those starting out at the Tyson slaughterhouse make $13.50 an hour. And in a story that began here in the 1980s, most of those workers are either Hispanic, Vietnamese, Somalian or Burmese, people lured here by the promise of steady work and a better life.
And that’s where Sister Janice Thome comes in.
I’m out here to do a story about the immigrant children of the meat plant workers, folks who are often new to the U.S. and struggling to understand a new culture while trying to make ends meet. In the last five years, the use of food stamps here has risen 230 percent and three-quarters of the kids in the local school district are on free- or reduced-cost lunch.
The school district, which now has “minority-majority” status because more than 70 percent are Hispanic (Mexico, Guatamala, El Salvador), feeds a lot of the children.
I watched this week as staff at the district offices unloaded a truck of boxes from the local food bank, supplies built to fit into students’ backpacks and to take home on Friday for weekend use. Most kids have two meals a day at the school, which might be all they eat that day. Last year, 341 kids enrolled in the district were homeless.
Two of the many people involved in a significant social services network here are Sister Janice and another Dominican Order of Peace sister, Roserita Weber, in a ministry they call “presence with the poor.”
I spent an exhausting day of working out of Sister Janice’s “office” – a 2003 brown Ford Focus. We visited shelters, food banks, community care centers and at least a dozen trailer parks as she fielded calls on her flip phone and worked her magic for those needing it most.
I asked Sister Janice if she thought it was – interesting? ironic? surprising? -- that people who work in the U.S. food supply chain are hungry.
“No,” she said, “because the minimum wage is so low.”
So a guy working at Tyson, for instance, could take home about $25,000 a year, but if he and his wife have a couple kids, and many do, they could still qualify for food assistance.
The sisters provide whatever help is asked of them, whether that’s a need for food, furniture, utility bills, gas for their cars or driving them to medical appointments, often as far as Wichita or Kansas City. When they discovered that many of the new immigrants needed to learn to drive, Sister Roserita started drivers ed lessons, and she counts more than 250 licenses (and a couple accidents) over the years.
“She’s got nerves of steel,” Sister Janice said.
Here since 1996, Sister Janice has been serving – her verb choice – her families with focused energy, no drama and a practical sense of purpose wrapped up in a crisp polka dot blouse.
“I’m a happy-go-lucky soul,” she said. “I figure I would have gone zinging off into who knows what and this way, God got me when God wanted to and it fits my lifestyle.”
God got her three days after her 16th birthday, in August 1961, fresh off a small dairy farm outside of Wichita. She’s now 68 and seems to still have the energy of that 16-year-old – and the people of Garden City are the luckier for it.
Along with Abbie Swanson, who is visiting a small town in Missouri to check on poultry plant workers, we’ll be publishing our stories next month. Our stories are part of a fellowship called “Immigration in the Heartland,” sponsored by the Institute for Justice and Journalism.
So come back around and we’ll be sharing what we’ve learned about life in a meat-packing town. It’s not the end of the rainbow, but we can see all the colors from here.