Mattie Rhodes Center

Crystal Herriage

“The Mattie Rhodes Community Center is a community development organization dedicated to individual and family well-being through social services, behavioral health counseling and the arts.” 1 This quote from their website really encompasses the important services they provide to the Kansas City Latinx community.  The center offers many services to assist all age groups in almost all aspects of life. John Fierro, the President and CEO of the center, has called the Mattie Rhodes an intersection of services, which is an excellent way to showcase all the areas they help the community. 2 The two main legs are the Art Center and Behavioral Health, and from these two are all the programs can reach all ages from childhood up to the elder care. The dedication of its staff, volunteers, program directors, and the President and CEO, comes from a personal drive to give the best quality help the community needs.

The Mattie Rhodes started in 1890 by Mattie Florence Rhodes, who unfortunately passed at the age of 19. 3 In her memory, her friends of “Little Gleaner,” a church group, invested her initial life savings of $500 to start the Mattie Rhodes Memorial Society. This organization initially helped poor families in Kansas City’s Westside during the Great Depression. Through the years, the Mattie Rhodes Center has added more services and programs to meet more needs.  When an assessment was done in the 1950s, mental health was added to their list of programs. As the center has expanded into the 21st century, Mattie Rhodes has added an Art Center and an Art Gallery, where youth and adults can learn about art. Other programs include sports programs, such as soccer, and supportive living classes for the disabled members of the community to encourage independent living.

One of the most successful programs is the after school program. Children from the community come to Mattie Rhodes and get help with homework with the staff and volunteers, which is helpful to the families with parents who may work many hours at one job or two or more jobs.  Some of the staff say they have seen some children grow up using all sorts of the services and participating in activities at the center and going on field trips.  It is very satisfying to them to see some of the children graduate high school.  Director of Young Adult & Youth Service, Alisha Gambino said that she was very happy when a young man invited her to his graduation and said she was instrumental in his success. 4 Furthermore, Gambino stated that working with the youth also allows volunteers and staff members to identify areas in which families need support. Once a family becomes aware of youth programs, they oftentimes realize that there are other areas Mattie Rhodes addresses, which allows them to take advantage of these services.  The center has satellite offices in schools including Argentine Middle School, Northeast High School and St. John the Evangelist Parish. 5

The arts program has played a vital role in Kansas City’s Latinx community as Mattie Rhodes’s volunteers and staff have educated many local artists. One of them is Jenny Mendez the current Director of Cultural Arts at the center. Mendez is a third generation Mexican artist, born and raised in Kansas City. She recalled going to Mattie Rhodes as a child, and learn about art and art production in the building next to the Art Gallery. Although she has had a drive for art since she was young, her passion further developed at the center. She eventually graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute. 6

Later, Mendez returned to the center and has become an excellent role model for the younger generations that attend Mattie Rhodes. She expressed that she sees her experiences as a child and young adult reflected in the younger generations that come to Mattie Rhodes, as she sees the same look in the children’s eyes when they first come to the art center today. Alisha Gambino, the Director of Youth & Young Adult Services, stated that the arts program can be used as a tool for developing social skills and self-help rather than for judgment of artist ability. Some can become more artistic as they grow up to become artists. 7

As the Director of Cultural Arts, Jenny Mendez oversees the development and organization of cultural events for the Latinx community in the Westside and in Kansas City. One of her first efforts was establishing a Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Death celebration at Mattie Rhodes. This stemmed from when she visited a Día de los Muertos in Chicago, and Mendez believed that given Kansas City’s Latinx population, the city would would be a great place to this celebration.  Since the inception of Día de los Muertos, Mendez has ensured the authenticity of the event, especially since the event has become commercialized in recent years. Mendez knows that the community takes this day very seriously and she ensures that it is done in a respectful way. She lets the community know that they can come in and pay respects in the way they are accustomed and it has not commercialized as many holidays have been in the past. 8

Mendez has also incorporated Mattie Rhodes to the larger art scene of Kansas City. The center participates in the First Fridays Crossroads District event during the summer nights. 9 Besides inviting guests into their art gallery during First Fridays, Mattie Rhodes also hosts programing revolving around Latinx culture such as Grupo Axe Capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts group that performs outside of the center. During these events, visitors can find food vendors who cook and serve authentic Mexican food. While the center is a little distance from the rest of the Crossroads District, Mattie Rhodes helps to interject Latinx culture into the rest of the city’s cultural and artistic events. 10

In the next few years, the Mattie Rhodes Center is looking forward to an expansion in Kansas City’s Westside. The staff and board of directors hope to move the Art Center and Art Gallery to a larger facility just down the road from its current location. The new facility will be able to hold more artwork and they will be able to have more events to showcase artists.  As the Westside is growing and its face is changing due to gentrification, Mattie Rhodes staff members hope that the new center will help maintain Mexican culture and vibe that has existed in the neighborhood for decades.


  1.  “History” Mattie Rhodes Center website,, accessed on April 28, 2017.
  2. Interview with John Fierro, conducted by Crystal Herriage, April 21, 2017.
  3. “History,” Mattie Rhodes Center website.
  4. Interview with Alisha Gambino, conducted by Crystal Herriage, April 21, 2017.
  5. “Contact Us” Mattie Rhodes Center website,, accessed April 28, 2017.
  6. Interview with Jenny Mendez, conducted by Crystal Herriage, March 21, 2017.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Crossroads Art District, accessed on April 30, 2017.
  10. Mendez interview.