ST. LOUIS — The Ville bustled when Kim Spain grew up there. Homer G. Phillips Hospital was a source of pride. There were grocery stores and lots of neighbors and family members around for a spare cup of sugar or a meal.
She learned from a young age that she wanted to help people. She went to middle school at St. Matthew the Apostle Catholic Church, then graduated from Beaumont High School before earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from Webster University.
Children born premature, some with congenital anomalies, were her earliest focus.
“I often wondered about those children who didn’t go home,” she said.
She later ran an emergency shelter and transitional housing program for women at the now-closed Shalom House. She worked as a nurse in Georgia and Memphis.
When she moved back to the Ville about 10 years ago, the decline of her old neighborhood seemed particularly stark.
“Families are a lot more transient,” said Spain, now 56. “There are no services. We don’t have a laundromat.”
She got a job working for the Missouri Department of Mental Health developmental disabilities division. She also wanted to do something for the hungry children she was encountering near home.
“I remember standing on my porch thinking what can I do to help the community that raised me,” she said. “I know those streets. I know St. Louis Avenue. I know Maffitt. I know Lincoln and Cottage.”
In 2017, Claver House, a four-family flat named after the Roman Catholic patron saint of slaves, offered her a space there at 4155 Kennerly Avenue. Parishioners from St. Mathews, which no longer has a school, created the nonprofit in 1999 to help revitalize the neighborhood.
Soon, children packed around a kitchen table on Saturday mornings for pancake breakfasts.
“There is a place where you can go, where you can feel like a family member is giving it to you,” she said of the effort. “It’s just a neighborly thing to do.”
She was particularly hooked once a child grabbed a book off the shelf at Claver House and started reading on their own in a comfortable chair. She said numerous friends and organizations have donated books and nonperishable food.
Since the pandemic, Project Read and Feed, as it’s officially called, has gone mobile. On Wednesday evenings, volunteers deliver reading materials, a warm meal, hygiene products and canned goods to families.
During a recent stop on a scrappy block of Whittier Street, she got out and smiled at the puppy on the porch. She said she hoped the pit bull would be just as friendly to her after it was full grown.
She knocked. Then knocked some more.
“It’s Kim,” she said to a cautious voice coming from the other side. “Are the kids home?”
The children weren’t home from school at 4 p.m.
“I have some food for you,” she said through the door, which finally opened. “… And some books.”
There were enough in the box to make a small library. She also left a message for the children.
“Tell them I miss them,” she said.
The exchange drew two curious men out of the shadows. One was fixing a broken vehicle.
“Excuse me, Ms. Kim,” he said. “Do you have any more?”
She’s trying to bring “little sparkles of joy” to children, but she and the other volunteers learned to pack extra food for hungry adults on the route.
“Thank you, Ms. Kim.”
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