‘This Is a Need We Can Get Rid of’

Jordan Connell, a 2007 graduate of Union High School, runs down Highway 50 in Union last October on his journey running from New York to California visiting youth homeless shelters along the way. He completed the run Jan. 15 and now is in the beginning stages of gathering information and networking with others to establish a youth homeless shelter and youth center in Franklin County.  Submitted Photos.

When you’re calling on God to accomplish a difficult mission that you believe he’s set before you, it might help if you looked like Jesus — at least, it couldn’t hurt.

With his long hair, tall, thin build and soft-spoken voice, Jordan Connell, a 2007 graduate of Union High School, certainly looks the part of a missionary.

Back in 2011, after working with several programs for homeless youth in Kansas City and Bourbon, Connell felt the need to do more. He wanted to raise awareness of the issue and, at the same time, learn more about it himself.

So God sent him on a trip — running across the country, from New York to California, stopping along the way at youth homeless shelters to get to know the kids and at churches to talk to members about the reality of youth homelessness and ways they could help.

Connell just wrapped up his 3,080-mile run on Jan. 15 at Santa Monica Pier, exactly four months after he began in New York City’s Central Park.

He’s home in Union now, resting and recuperating and beginning the next leg of his journey — working to get a youth center and shelter built in Franklin County.

If you think he’s dreaming, he agrees. The Legacy Center, as he is calling it for now, is his dream. But that doesn’t mean the community can’t make it happen.

“What this run did for me was show me how to take the small steps,” said Connell.

“I understand that this could take 10 years. I hope it comes much quicker, but I hope the community can see me as someone who is able to stick it out and see this through.”

Unexpected Calling

Connell knows what it’s like to struggle. Growing up in Union, he experienced his fair share of difficulties.

“My parents worked really hard, but we still kind of struggled at different times. And that kind of taught me to really see the importance of having people around me who were going to help and help push me forward,” said Connell. “We relied on a lot of family members a lot of times early growing up to provide a place to go.”

After graduating high school, Connell was fortunate enough to earn a small basketball scholarship to William Jewell College in Liberty, northeast of Kansas City.

By his second year, however, he had lost his direction, so he did what he had learned growing up attending First Christian Church in Union — he turned to God.

“I found myself really broken, just praying, ‘God, if you do have a bigger plan for my life, if you’re really there, I need to do it. I’ll do whatever you ask.’ ”

He left school and signed up to volunteer with Mission Life, an interfaith urban ministry program. His assignment was working for a homeless mission on the south side of Chicago.

“I spent basically every day in and off the streets . . . . seeing a different world that was very different than growing up here,” said Connell. “I moved into a community that was all black. I was the minority, me and six other white people. It gave me a chance just to see and learn a different life.

“At the time, they said it was one of the top five worst places to live,” Connell recalled. “It was very rundown. The poverty level was something I couldn’t have imagined until I saw it.”

Having grown up himself in what he thought was poverty, Connell said the youth he worked with in Chicago had it far worse than he ever did.

“And it wasn’t that far away,” Connell remarked. “I didn’t have to go overseas to see poverty.

“That set me on a new direction. I started connecting with the youth who were there, trying to start an after school program, trying to love the kids who were all around us, constantly on the street. Always kids running in and out, trying to survive.”

Connell was given room and board (funded by donations from friends and family) and received a small stipend of $60 a month to buy food. He and the other volunteers in his house pooled their stipends in an effort to maximize their ability to put food on the table, but it was a challenge.

“It was bare minimum, but it was enough to keep us alive,” said Connell. “A big part of our program was to come in and not live above the poverty level of the people who were there.”

They ate a lot of rice and beans and received help from the local food pantry.

“We got to really experience what it was like,” said Connell.

When his year of service was over, Connell headed back to the Kansas City area with a desire to keep working with homeless youth, but no clear plan.

“I was out walking along the plaza area, just praying, asking God to show me a way to turn. There was a man up under a bridge. He saw me and asked, ‘Do you need a place to stay?’ ”

It was an invitation to start a conversation.

“So I went up there . . . went to sit down on this flat top under this bridge, and this very rough homeless man who had been living under this bridge for about six years, said, ‘Don’t (sit down) on that ground. It’s too dirty.’ He gave me his bed and said, ‘Here’s a clean blanket to sit on.’ ”

Connell couldn’t help but feel moved.

“Here he had nothing, but he just gave me his bed. And I thought, wow! So I sat there for the evening. There were probably seven or eight guys who lived under this bridge that I had walked across every day and had no idea they were down there.”

Connell ended up spending his evenings and nights under that bridge (at Broadway and Brush Creek) for about 30 days. He had a job managing a thrift store during the day, but wanted to experience what it was like for these men to be homeless.

“What I saw from being underneath there was more of a transient population of young kids who were coming in and out. They’d run away, kids who were hopping trains just passing through, were stopping and staying under that bridge as well.”

That’s how Connell met Mr. Woo, a gentleman who was starting a new youth program, Artists Helping the Homeless.

“He came to that area quite frequently . . . saw me under there and was wondering what I was doing. That opened a door for me to help him.”

Connell noted that Woo was concerned for his safety, but he felt safe enough to keep going.

“I understood it was dangerous, but the community of guys who were underneath there, they welcomed me. They said, ‘We’ll make sure nothing happens to you now that you’re here.’ So it was encouraging, but I knew I still needed to sleep with one eye open.”

Woo ended up offering Connell a job as a residential counselor with Artists Helping the Homeless, and he accepted. For 1 1/2 years, he worked with youth ages 16 to 22, helping them “walk through the steps” toward adulthood — finishing high school, getting a job, trying to get off drugs if they were on them, trying to figure out what it meant to be an adult now that they didn’t have family support.

“I got to become part of a family with these guys,” said Connell, “became more of a mentor for those guys, helping them. Being their age or a little younger or older, they kind of had a connection with me . . . I learned a lot from them. Being with them, really pulled on my heart that I’m able to help eight or 10 of these guys throughout the year, but there are so many more who could benefit from just another person stepping in to let them know they love them.”

Then suddenly another opportunity presented itself to Connell in 2011. The Salvation Army had heard of his work and contacted him about being a summer youth counselor for inner city kids out of Kansas City and St. Louis at a facility in Bourbon.

That was the move that set his life on its current course. The fellow counselor that Connell roomed with there inspired him.

“He grew up on the streets of St. Louis. His mom was addicted to drugs. He suffered, bounced around in shelters, but was still so full of joy,” said Connell. “I saw that was an experience to help people change lives.

“His story and those of the other youth I’d met pulled on my heart, and I started praying for a way to connect and do something more for these kids.

“That summer, that’s when I felt like God was leading me to run across the country.”

Getting Ready to Run

As determined as he was to follow the plan he felt God was laying out for him, Connell admits he struggled at times with believing he could accomplish it.

“I thought, I’ve seen ‘Forrest Gump,’ but can someone really do this?”

So, as he always had in his life when faced with a moment of weakness, he turned to God.

“I said to myself, ‘OK, God, if this is what you want me to, I’m going to set out to run from here (Union) to Washington, and if I get there I’ll know this is what you want me to do. I made it, and I felt like it was God who helped me get there and showed me it could be more than running.”

So Connell headed back to Kansas City with the mindset that he was going to plan a run across the country. He found a coach to train him and put together a team to help and to carry out the run.

Soon after he started training, Connell realized he wouldn’t be able to continue his regular work schedule, so he began looking for a way to supplement his income while training. On Craig’s List he found the ideal solution — a job for a dog runner.

As word of Connell’s cross-country run moved through the homeless youth network, he was approached by a national organization — National Safe Place, which helps create youth homes and other programs across country — about sponsoring his trip. It was a wonderful surprise, and Connell accepted.

Six months later, however, NSP had to rescind its offer, and Connell was left trying to figure out how he could still make the run happen.

“It put me back in position of, ‘If this is what God wants me to do, He’ll provide.’ ”

So as a test of his endurance and to test the waters for collecting funds from the public, Connell set out to do a fund-raiser run from Kansas City to St. Louis. When he reached the Gateway Arch, he began to feel the run could be successful.

“It helped pick up the team’s momentum and my morale,” said Connell.

With about one-third of the funds he expected he’d need — donations provided by family, friends and local churches — Connell and the team headed to New York City where they planned to begin. They had a camping trailer and a van where they could sleep and prepare meals.

The team included Connell’s mom, his sister, Jessica Connell, Union; Tony Crews, a classmate from Union High School; and other friends Josh Hartle, Tyler Schmitt and Hector Riviera. They called themselves Team 3:14 after the verse in Titus in the Bible: “Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives.”

Their journey began Sept. 15 at Covenant House Shelter in New York City. They visited with the people and learned about their program. From there, Connell took off running his daily 40 miles with the team following behind with the van and camper.

The plan, Connell said, was running 40 miles five days a week, using at least one of the off days to visit the youth shelters and programs in areas they passed through. And on Sundays, they shared the journey with many of the churches they found along the way.

That served a dual purpose. It was an opportunity to inform the church members of local youth homeless programs available in their area, but also it was a means of fund-raising. Plus, the churches allowed the team to park for the night on their parking lot, saving them money.

It was an opportunity to find out what the churches were doing already and hopefully inspire them to do a little more, said Connell.

“There’s a verse in James that says, religion that God honors is taking care of orphans and widows . . . ,” he remarked. “Well, these are the orphans of our country. If the government is not able to do enough, we need to take care of these youth.”

Cardboard Project

In their trek across the country, Team 3:14 visited 30 homeless youth shelters where they met with directors, learning what it takes to run them and be successful. In doing this, they also met with many of the youth and were so impressed by them, they felt compelled to share their stories.

That’s how the Cardboard Project began.

“The statistics (of homeless youth) were blowing my mind — 2.8 million youth. So I started to wonder, how do I share the stories of the ones I meet?” said Connell.

The team took inspiration from people’s stereotype of homeless people — that guy on the street holding up a cardboard sign.

“We decided, let’s play on that. We took cardboard pieces where we met the kids and we invited them to write and share their story, maybe draw a picture or a word of hope, something that resonated with their lives,” said Connell.

Their comments, now posted on Team 3:14’s website, www.team314.org, caught them all by surprise.

“You can read the pain but they have hope for their future,” said Connell.

People may want to believe a stereotype that all homeless youth are drug addicts or kids who were extreme troublemakers and got kicked out of their homes, and while that may account for some of them, many of them had nothing to do with their present circumstances, said Connell. A lot of homeless kids are ones who age out of foster care.

In most cases, they weren’t given a chance to learn the life skills necessary to be a successful adult.

The same is true right here in Franklin County, said Connell. There are nearly 300 kids in foster care here. Eventually they age out of the program and end up bouncing around from house to house with no solid structure in life.

“That’s why it’s so necessary to continue to walk with these kids until you see them off to become a successful adult,” said Connell. “It’s necessary to be a mentor.”

He sees churches as having the adults who are able to fill these roles, to help these youth walk through these steps.

3,080 Miles, 12 Pairs of Shoes

Connell ended his run across the country on Jan. 15 at Santa Monica Pier. He had come 3,080 miles and worn out 12 pairs of shoes — Nike Lunar Glide 4, which sell for $120 each.

The shoes were donated to Connell after he put a message on his Facebook page. In one weekend, eight pairs showed up on his doorstep.

The team’s shirts were donated by UN2Sports, a new clothing line. They also sold shirts as a means of fund-raising and gave shirts to kids at the shelters where they stopped.

His socks were provided by Features, and they were excellent, he said — he didn’t get one blister!

Connell said he picked the route from New York to California based on where youth homeless shelters were located, but also being cognizant of the weather and time of year. His plan was to avoid the typical winter mix by making his way out of the Midwest before December.

Mother Nature didn’t cooperate.

“My second weekend on the road in Pennsylvania, it rained on me seven days straight and in the mornings we woke up to 30 degrees. I was not prepared for that in the beginning,” said Connell.

He ran into his first snow in New Mexico, where he had expected it to be warmer and sunnier.

As you might expect from running in these kind of conditions, Connell ended up getting sick twice along the way and fought a cold for the majority of the trip. The last week of the journey he came down with bronchitis so severe that he ended up going to the hospital to make sure he could keep going.

After two days’ rest, he was back on the road.

Still, the overall experience was glorious, said Connell.

“I started each morning, before the sun came up, and by end of trip, I was taking 10 to 14 hours a day to accomplish the 40 miles,” he commented. “I saw the beauty of creation around me. To be outside and experience it . . . it became more of a rhythm for me.”

Having the energy to keep up this kind of pace for 40 days was its own kind of challenge and why Connell needed a support team to accompany him.

He tried to consume 10,000 calories a day, which became more difficult after he developed a bad reaction to meat and had to begin a more vegetarian diet of mostly pasta and peanut butter.

“I ate at least one jar of peanut butter a day at one point, six peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a day, and that was tough. We were trying to do it on a budget.”

Now that he’s home in Union, Connell is trying to get his body back to its pre-run state. While he didn’t suffered from any major running pains, he did lose toenails and his feet swelled up every night.

Dr. Rose Fischer of Natural Healing Center in Union is helping Connell get back to full health, getting used to a normal diet — closer to 2,000 calories a day, rather than 10,000.

“My body got used to all the food and water I had been consuming. Now that it’s not, I get dehydrated a lot quicker,” said Connell.

‘God Carried Me’

Looking back on the physical feat of running across the country, Connell credits God with getting him through safely.

“It didn’t make sense to me that I could go out, run 40 miles over 12 hours a day, get only four to five hours of sleep a night and get up the next day ready to do again,” he said.

“I woke up every morning, said, ‘God, I know I can’t do this, but I know that you can.’ I know God carried me every step of the way. Physically I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

Wants to Build a Legacy

The run may be over, but Connell’s plans are not. He’s already taking the small steps needed toward making the Legacy Center a reality. Now he’s speaking at local churches over the next couple of months, sharing a vision for creating a youth center.

He sees it being a program that offers after-school alternatives and maybe even open late some nights. It would be an educational facility and provide opportunities for art.

“We want to see a place where kids can be excited to go,” said Connell, noting the youth shelter would be a separate facility from the center.

To those who doubt his determination and ability to move forward with the plan, Connell admits it is daunting — but so was running across the country.

“What this run did for me is show me how to take the small steps,” he said.

“I understand that this could take 10 years before it ever happens. I hope that it comes off much quicker. I hope that the community will see me as someone who is willing to stick it out, see it through, that they will come out and get behind it as well.

“Yes, it is a very large task, and I can’t do it on my own.”

He’s making connections with existing local programs and wants to collaborate with them for the Legacy Center.

For more information or to get in touch with Connell, people can send him an email at jordan@team314.org or call 636-584-9016.