Topeka's Community Action, Inc. celebrates 45 years of service by throwing it back to 1972

Poverty rate in 1972 was 12 percent; today it is 12.7 percent

Thea Parks, human resources director for Community Action, Inc., channels Gloria Gaynor as she sings “I Will Survive,” Thursday during the organization’s 45th anniversary celebration. (Katie Moore/The Capital-Journal)

Community Action, Inc. celebrated 45 years of fighting poverty in Kansas by throwing it back to the year the organization was founded — 1972.


Employees and supporters of the organization clad in clothes reminiscent of the early 1970s gathered Thursday at the Bettis Family Sports Complex, 3025 S.E. Croco Road.

The event resembled a late-night talk show and included a public service announcement where poverty was discussed, said executive director Tawny Stottlemire. In 1972, the nationwide poverty rate was 12 percent. Today, it is 12.7 percent.

Stottlemire said poverty has persisted because of housing, transportation and wage challenges. But the problem runs deeper.

“It’s how our society behaves about poverty,” Stottlemire said. “There’s stigma, there are myths … Until we as a society really embrace the systemic, the political, the geographic and the personal-responsibility issues about poverty — not just the personal-responsibility issue — then we are going to continue meandering along on this path.”

The organization was founded as the Shawnee County Community Assistance and Action Community Action. It supported the Head Start program and provided emergency assistance, Stottlemire said.

Today, Community Action serves 26 northeast and north central Kansas counties. In addition to Head Start and emergency assistance, the organization supports prenatal care through senior services.

The celebration recognized Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast, Sheldon Weisgrau and Washburn University’s Bonner Scholar Program for their work in combating poverty.

“The role of government is to assist where there is need, and these programs are just extremely important — they’re vital to the community,” Wolgast said.

Weisgrau is the director of the Health Reform Resource Project, which has been advocating for Medicaid expansion in the state.

“I’m honored to get an award,” he said. “I wish I could get this award for actually expanding the Medicaid program. We got very close and we’re going to keep pushing.”

In March, Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed a Medicaid expansion bill passed by the Kansas Legislature. The House then fell three votes short of overcoming his veto.

The Bonner Scholar Program encourages community engagement by students, who are placed with various nonprofits. Washburn students assist Community Action in their business office, with media projects and in the Head Start program, said Rick Ellis, director of Washburn’s Learning in the Community. Students commit three to four years to the program and their work gets increasingly sophisticated as they learn and progress, Ellis said.

The event also included performers covering Gloria Gaynor and Elvis Presley and other entertainment.

This year, more than 200 children have benefited from Head Start and Early Head Start, 1,300 children have received life-skills coaching, 122 people have avoided homelessness, and 256 seniors have been able to maintain independent living because of Community Action’s work, the organization said.