KC Cares: Bridging the Gap


Heartland Tree Alliance volunteers work on a tree in in the Eastwood Hills neighborhood in Kansas City as part of the free street tree project. // Courtesy photo

As the spring weather gets warmer, folks around the metro are thinking of gardens and plants. For Bridging the Gap, though, making Kansas City greener isn’t a seasonal affair.

What started as a community-building exercise through volunteerism and recycling has blossomed over several decades into a slate of environmentally-focused endeavors. Though you might know them best for the numerous recycling centers they’ve established, Bridging the Gap is involved in much more, from the Heartland Tree Alliance to their Kansas City WildLands project.

“We’re best known as probably the largest and perhaps most diverse—in terms of programming—of any environmental group in this part of the country,” says Bridging the Gap Executive Director Kristin Riott.

The work is a mixture of environmental education, best practices, and hands-on improvement. Many people like that the volunteer work with Bridging the Gap takes them outside.

“We hope we inspire people when they come out and work on one of our prairies, for example, with the beauty of those prairies. We’re connecting them to original ecosystems that were here 200 years ago,” Riott says.


A Heartland Tree Alliance volunteer poses with one of the free street trees the groups planted in Liberty. // Courtesy photo

Bridging the Gap has restored and maintained 450 acres of remnant glades and prairies in the area. If you want to take a look at their work, visit Jerry Smith Park at 139th Street and Holmes Road.

“We had an entomologist do an inventory of the bees that were on it four or five years ago, and he pronounced it one of most biologically-diverse pieces of land in this part of the country,” Riott says. “It takes a good 15 years to really fully restore a prairie, remove all the invasive [species], get plants to grow, and keep digging out the stuff that doesn’t belong there.”

She estimates that over the last 15 years, Bridging the Gap has planted approximately 40,000 trees in the metro area, with a two-year mortality rate of just 4%.

Prairie Village resident Tim Ackerman got involved as a volunteer when he contacted the organization for advice on planting trees in his yard. That interaction led him to become involved, first with the Heartland Tree Alliance and then with the Kansas City WildLands programs.

With the latter group, he collected seeds from prairies, sorted them, and then sowed them for what he calls a “full circle” experience helping to repopulate native plants.

The knowledge he’s gained with Bridging the Gap is something he’s been able to apply in his personal life too.

“You can be surprised about what you learn when you choose to volunteer. I thought I knew how to plant a tree, for example. Yeah, you know how to put a tree in the ground, but do you know how to prepare a tree so it has the best chance of survival? I didn’t know that. I just thought, ‘Yeah, it’ll be fine. Just give it some water.’ But no, there’s a lot more to it,” Ackerman says.


Alvin, a water and energy community specialist, installs an LED bulb in a Kansas City resident’s home as part of the Water & Energy Savers program. // Courtesy photo

The outdoor landscape isn’t the only place where Bridging the Gap has had an impact. Low-income residents have seen the results of the group’s goals inside their own homes with their energy efficiency programs.

Between 2012 and 2014, they gave away water-efficient kits to 7,000 households with help from federal grants. Another big part of the program was replacing old toilets.

“People were so happy to learn how they could reduce their bills even a little bit, even $20-$30 a month,” says Riott. “There’s a lot of people that have struggled in Kansas City for a long time, and sometimes we’re able to help them, and that’s deeply gratifying.”

Some stories stick out among the many people she and her team have encountered.

“We had a gentleman about a year and a half ago who had not had hot water in his home for more than a year. He was boiling water over a stove to bathe in, to wash,” Riott says.

Working with Kansas City’s Office of Environmental Quality, they were able to use funds from the U.S. Department of Energy to buy him an energy-efficient hot water heater.

“So for the first time in a year and a half or so, he had hot water, and he told one our team leaders, ‘Miss Kechia, I feel like I want to clean my whole house now because I’ve got clean clothes, and I can take a shower, and I just want a fresh start for me,’ Riott says. “We have those moments, and not infrequently, actually.”

Bridging the Gap has a variety of different volunteer opportunities. For more information on how to get involved, go to bridgingthegap.org/volunteer  

Categories: Culture