After 35 years, we have a lot of stories to tell. As we lead up to our anniversary on Nov. 20, we want to tell you a little bit about our history. We hope you’ll learn something new about who we are and how we work. This week, we’ll learn about the building in Kansas City where our approximately 175 U.S.-based staff members work.
A few years ago, a group of visitors to Unbound’s headquarters in Kansas City were given a tour of our building. When they got to what was then the CEO’s office, they were amazed at the small, simple room with brick walls and no window. The idea that the boss would work out of such an unpretentious space ran counter to everything they had thought about the business world.
For those of us who work in the building, that’s just one of a thousand things we take in stride. We love the fact that our humble, funky, oddly shaped old building defies conventional wisdom. Somehow, that seems appropriate for an organization that, for 35 years, has been doing the very same thing.
The Unbound building sits on the edge of Kansas City, Kansas, in the old Rosedale neighborhood (part of our parking lot is actually in Missouri). Across Southwest Boulevard by the railroad tracks is a giant grain elevator in serious need of paint, and up and down the street are a series of taquerías and other small restaurants, along with a handful of mom-and-pop businesses with humble storefronts. It would be hard to find a less pretentious place to locate the headquarters of a major child sponsorship organization.
The Unbound building has gone through many incarnations. Built in 1920 as a factory for producing the decorative tin ceiling panels that were all the rage in high-scale homes of the period, it was used, over the years, mainly as a warehouse. When the founders of Unbound purchased the building in 1991, it had most recently been a bowling supply company. Paco Wertin, director of church relations, remembers those early days.
“When we looked around in the warehouse we saw all kinds of leftover objects,” Paco said. “We found bowling pins and bowling balls, and there was a demonstration alley with two lanes that we cut up for tables. They were so darn heavy and thick, but we used them for a few years.”
The custom of getting the most out of what was available didn’t end with the bowling lanes turned tables. Repurposing became a part of the culture of Unbound, in particular within the headquarters building. Nearly every inch of what now serves as office space has been modified, more than once, from its original use.
“The building is solid, concrete and durable,” Paco said. “It was useful to us and it was flexible and it provided a good place for us. We were always trying to use what was already here and make it the best we could.”
That sensitivity is largely the legacy of the late Joe Grilliot, a former missionary priest who became an Unbound employee and, later, a volunteer. Joe helped instill in the Kansas staff a consciousness of stewardship and recycling that’s become second nature and, in a way, parallels the reality of those we work with throughout the world. Whether discussing the financial contributions of our sponsors or the discarded hospital gurneys we use to deliver the mail, waste is not a part of the Unbound ethos.
Probably nobody knows the Unbound building as well as Bryce Merry, the facility maintenance coordinator. He’s seen every corner of the 100,000 square-foot building, from the roof where our late co-founder Bob Hentzen kept a garden, to the giant, antiquated coal-burning furnaces in the subbasement.
“It’s built with more concrete than Fort Knox,” Bryce said. “They just don’t build buildings like this anymore. It’s definitely quirky.”Bryce has also seen, firsthand, how the space needs have changed over the years. He’s been involved in countless reconfiguration efforts aimed at keeping up with the needs of a building that, in the early days of the organization, accommodated a staff of 12 and today houses a staff of about 175.
In the end, the story of Unbound isn’t really about bricks and mortar but human beings. Still, it’s gratifying to reflect on how we’ve used the material resources available to us to serve our mission of helping people raise themselves out of debilitating need. It seems fitting that a nearly 100-year-old building — constructed at a time when earning a daily wage was a source of personal pride and neighbors looked after each other — is helping people rediscover those basic virtues.