What's in a Name? Don Pardew Gives the Gift of Respect to Kansas City’s Street Communities
“I HAVE A NAME”. This simple yet profound philosophy is at the heart of Facility Maintenance Plumber Don Pardew’s ministry to local street and houseless communities in Kansas City.
“When someone asks if they can give you a hug, or they light up because you remembered their name, and maybe something personal, like their shoe size, that’s what makes it all worthwhile,” Don said.
Don is part of P1 Service’s Facility Maintenance Operations team at the University of Kansas Health System (KU Med) at the main hospital campus in Kansas City, KS.
Don came to work for P1 when it was still ADJ-Hux (AD Jacobson and Huxtable) as a plumber.
But, with a college degree in art and psychology, he decided to take a break from facility work to get more into residential design and run his own business.
After his kids were grown, the unpredictability and endless paperwork of being in business for yourself became more than it was worth. So Don returned to his roots as a pipefitter, and re-joined the union through a former P1 co-worker.
Today, Don works for the HVAC and plumbing team at the main KU med campus, and the surrounding buildings, including Cambridge Tower, Heart Building, Medical Office Building, Rehab, and the Strawberry Hill location.
“I enjoy this work because we have a fantastic team here,” Don said. “The HVAC and plumbing experts work so well together to keep things on track every day.”
One winter night, Don was having trouble sleeping, so he turned on the TV and diverted his attention between that and prayer, something he says helps him on those sleepless nights.
“It dawned on me, hey, I’m nice and warm here, but there are a lot of people out there who are not,” he recalled. "I need to go out and see what they need.”
For Don, this wasn’t a fleeting observation. It was an immediate call to action.
“The next morning I didn’t go to church. I made about 100 sandwiches, and coffee, and fruit, and I threw what coats I had in, and I just drove around,” Don said.
Coming from a youth discolored by abuse, and an intimate familiarity with the inability to be at home on many days and nights, Don has dealt with his own demons, and feels a connection to these communities.
“I know what it’s like to sleep in a Goodwill dumpster because you can’t go home, and scrounge for change just to be able to get something to eat,” he said.
“Because I can share what makes us more the same than different, I feel I can build some trust and relationships with so many of these people,” he added.
Don didn’t have to look far to find many places where the houseless were living. With each camp he visited, the people would tell him about another one.
“My main goal was finding out what they need. They need shoes, coats, propane and heaters. They need tents, and backpacks, and things they can move easily since the camps get raided and they sometimes have to pack up and move quick.”
From there, his ministry bloomed into a second job, one he enjoys so much he hopes to grow into a full-time mission when he retires, maybe even taking it into other cities.
He calls it I.H.A.N. – an acronym for his core philosophy, “I Have A Name”, the goal of which is to dispel ignorance and create understanding about the unique individuals that make up the growing number of street communities within our city.
“It may surprise people to know that a lot of people who are houseless are not drug addicts or alcoholics,” Don said. “In fact, some of them are just fine. They’re where they want to be.”
“Others have just been beaten down by terrible situations or society itself – the military, family, judicial and mental health systems,” he explained.
“There are people who carry around their individual paperwork to prove who they are and what has happened to them. That’s important to them.”
"One day I offered some socks to a man in one of the camps, and when I handed them over he looked back at me in awe,” Don recalled. “’These are new,’ the man said. He was just so happy to have something new. I’m glad he was happy, but I don’t think he knew how happy that also makes me.”
It’s not an easy ministry. Don goes to places that are heavy with drug sales and use, as well as dangerous areas of the city.
“I’ve had guns pulled on me, or shown to me,” Don said. “I just explain what I’m doing, and offer food or clothing, and in some cases they know me now and trust me to be down there.”
Don says it’s important to work around this and not stop helping the people who need it. “Sometimes the community will run the troublemakers out. They do their own policing at times, because they welcome the groups and individuals who stop by to help.”
But Don notes that the more formal organizations that visit the perimeters of the camps to deliver food or clothing don’t go back in the woods.
“They don’t go sit in their structures and talk to them, but I do,” Don said. “I’m not any better than them. I made different choices, that’s all.”
Others, including Don’s wife Rhonda, have joined him in providing what they can. Rhonda is an oncology nurse at KU, and she also goes with Don sometimes to help tend to wounds or minor medical issues. Burns are common in the winter due to the use of heaters and propane inside tents.
“She’s not afraid to touch them. She gets in there and doctors them up,” Don said.
“The appreciation they have for this simple kindness is just unreal. They’re being treated as equals, something they’re not used to. Once you reach that relationship, it’s a cool thing. It really is.”
Don’s challenge to everyone is to take the time to learn a name.
“So many people drive by and know ‘hey, that’s the homeless guy that’s always at that corner. He’s real nice.’ And I ask them, ‘what’s his name?’”
Don says people usually don’t know, so he challenges them to get out of the car sometime. Grab some McDonald’s, and sit down. Say “Hey, I got us some lunch. What’s your name?”
“If everyone would stop for three minutes, and just take the time for another human being. You can’t change the world, but you can change the world you live in.”
See Don’s story and experience his work in this compelling video, courtesy of Don and the Nall Avenue Church of the Nazarene.