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On a Mission

Alumnus finds challenges leading homeless shelter, tackling trafficking

Barry Feaker

From The Ichabod - Spring 2019

On April 21, 1986, Barry Feaker walked into his first day on the job as director of the Topeka Rescue Mission.

About 2 p.m., he got his first phone call. The caller said a drunk man with his pants around his ankles was walking toward the mission, and Feaker needed to take care of it. He walked outside to find an older man stumbling down Kansas Avenue toward him. The man got to him and reached out his hand, and Feaker helped him up on the sidewalk.

“He asked me if I had a belt,” Feaker said, realizing he wasn’t drunk, but instead, he was old and stiff. “He said, ‘Many years ago I was in a construction accident, I’m skin and bones, and I’m sorry, I just can’t keep my pants up – do you have a belt?’”

The people at the mission managed to find one. Feaker put the belt around the man because he could not do it himself, and he walked away.

“What I learned that day is that we look at people as we think we understand them, and we make a decision based on what we understand,” Feaker said. “It kind of set the pace for what I’m still learning over these 33 years as director.”

When Feaker, ba ’80, h ’13, started at the mission, he did not have other full-time staff to rely on. For a mission operating 24 hours a day, that was a problem, and for the first few years, he was always on call. Today, the mission has grown to five buildings, houses almost 300 people per night and runs a robust sack lunch program for people living on the streets.

A self-described high-sensation seeker, Feaker said he tends to choose the high roller coasters in life because he likes a challenge. On a plaque outside his office, there is a stained-glass art piece with the words “expect a miracle.” Given to him by a neighbor, this is how he faces the challenges of leading the mission.

“The opportunity to see an impossibility become a possibility is exciting to me, and to expect that miracle to happen," he said. "There are often problems without any solution, and it ends up working out.”

Feaker said he’s grown considerably in the job, but has become more settled over time in knowing his faith will guide him and the mission through successes and failures. Through it all, he has raised two daughters who still tell people about the work of the mission and carry on the values he portrayed in helping others. While he had to spend a lot of time at the mission, he made sure his children were there too interacting with people.

“I’ve stood in front of guns and knives, people with psychosis have threatened to kill me, I have seen death, and I’ve held people while they died, but none of that is as difficult as learning how to be a good dad,” he said. “Early on, my struggle was how to balance this and be a good father to my two young girls. After a while, I saw some evidence that I did not break them, so I was very happy.”

Despite the early struggles, Feaker is currently facing the largest challenge of his career as he is working to bring awareness to and combat an international problem that occurs in Topeka – human trafficking.

“When we got involved in combating human trafficking, it really changed me,” he said, telling a story about a woman who told him she had been trafficked and not believing her at first. “The eyes cannot see what the mind does not comprehend.”

He has since seen evidence of human trafficking at the mission for about five years now – or at least evidence he’s recognized and worked to combat. His way of dealing with it was, “Either I’m going to do something very drastic to stop this, or I’m going to do something very drastic to stop this – to me, there was no choice.”

He and former Gov. Sam Brownback worked together to make a proclamation, and while Feaker appreciated it, it needed more meat. He went to the Kansas Legislature and met with leadership in the House and Senate. Both chambers voted unanimously to pass resolutions to declare war on human trafficking within a two and half week period. On Feb. 1, 2018, the 70th anniversary of National Freedom Day, Kansas became the first state in the nation to declare war on human trafficking.

Topeka and Shawnee County declared war to do the same thing in April 2018, and now Feaker is working on all of northeast Kansas. He said the challenge is now how to navigate something that has grown into a national movement, because without a focus on human trafficking, the homelessness population will only continue to grow.

“I want to be as compassionate and loving and as understanding as possible to give everyone an opportunity to move forward in life,” he said.

The Ichabod Magazine Winter 2022 cover - Memorial Union with snow, pine needles in the foreground

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Topeka, KS 66604 Phone: 785.670.4483