Mama Kansas City and Her Sixty-five Boys
A Local Woman’s Story on How Lost Boys from Sudan Saved Her Life
By Mary Wilson
As families across the country gathered around their tables this week to focus on being thankful, one local woman concentrated not on what she has to be grateful for, but whom. Gina Kerns Moreno, who owns Integrity Staffing Specialists with her sister, Betty, and husband, Reno, knows she has so much to be thankful for, despite hard times in her life.
Moreno and her husband have four children, two each from previous marriages, and she defines her marriage to her first husband as being married to the "devil." The children from this marriage were not Moreno’s, but as step-parents often do when combining families, she fell in love with the boy and girl as if they were her own. The "devil," as Moreno describes, was abusive to her and the children, and eventually the marriage ended due to a massive gambling debt he accrued.
While Moreno was still married to the "devil," the kids were in a foster home after their mother, who was in prison, signed away her maternal rights. When the foster family expressed interest in adopting them, Moreno discovered that there was no money left for her to fight for custody of the children.
"He had $18,000 on one credit card from getting money at the boats," said Moreno.
At that time, she knew in order to get the kids, they would have to file for bankruptcy. In order to protect herself and her own assets, Moreno left the "devil" and the kids, while remaining in contact with the children over the years.
"He filed bankruptcy and I lived on $50 a week for many years because I was $90,000 in debt because I did not file for bankruptcy," said Moreno, "$30,000 of which was for getting the children."
After several years, the older of the two reached out to Moreno and reestablished a connection with her and her new husband.
Moreno is currently in her 34th year in the employment industry, working her first five years at Missouri Job Service and then working for a global employment service in which she was very successful. Eventually, she ended up working for a company called Dan-D Services, owned by the Dittoe family.
"For eight years working there, there was a lot of bad," said Moreno. "The good thing was while I was working at the Independence office, and through my work meeting people from all walks of life, I worked with the Don Bosco Refugee Center."
She worked with Dennis, from the Don Bosco Center, who was a political refugee from Bosnia, and in March of 2001, he came to visit Moreno and Dennis told her about the Lost Boys from Sudan.
"He said, ‘We’ve got a bunch of boys coming, and we don’t know how many we’re getting,’" said Moreno. "My big deal was, if I’m going to help any of them, they have to be able to read, write, understand and speak English. He assured me that they would all speak English."
He explained to Moreno that the government was bringing the orphans to the United States and they would be given free apartments for three months, after which they would have to start paying for their own living expenses as well as the $850 cost of the airfare to get here.
"I thought, okay, I can do this," said Moreno. "Nothing ever happened with it, and I kind of forgot all about it. Until one day in August, in came Dennis with two vehicles full of nine boys in our front door. They were so thin and so tall. He told me, ‘Gina, these are the Lost Boys I was telling you about.’"
They all introduced themselves to her, and she knows she did not even remember their names due to the shock of them standing in her office. They all needed jobs, so Moreno got to work to find placement for the nine. The next day, nine more came in. And then more the next day. In total, Moreno handled the job placement for 65 Lost Boys in Kansas City.
"That first group, I don’t even know how to describe the emotions I felt for them," said Moreno. "I had been through this horrific marriage. I left those kids and I promised them I would never leave them. I had Reno, who is the best person in the world, and I still felt like something was missing in my life. When they walked in that office and introduced themselves to me, I was bound and determined, I didn’t care what I had to do, I was going to get those boys jobs."
Moreno was successful in finding them jobs. One in particular, named Joseph, came in when Moreno was not in the office and was assigned to a job at a furniture manufacturer. She decided, after being told that Joseph was small, to go by the next day and check on him.
"He instantly grabbed my heart," said Moreno. "He was so little, and he wanted to be a doctor."
Joseph one day told her about how much he loved eating the "hamburger sandwiches" from the vending machine. They talked often when Moreno would visit with him at work, and eventually Joseph brought her a VHS tape. When she got home that night, she put the tape in, and it was a 60 Minutes story that featured Joseph and the story of the Lost Boys.
"Before then, I had no idea what these boys had been through," said Moreno. "I wailed. I didn’t cry, I wailed. It featured Joseph in Kansas City and a boy named Abraham in Atlanta."
Joseph had been one of two boys picked to follow on their journey, starting back at the refugee camp in Kenya. In the story, the need for mentors for the boys in America was advertised, and Moreno went to work to find out what she needed to do to be a mentor.
"By this time, we had our 65 boys who were employed and doing pretty well," said Moreno. "When I found out about the mentors, I contacted the Don Bosco Center to find out more information."
Moreno was informed that there were certain financial requirements in order to qualify. Living on $50 a week, she explained that was all she had for gas, cigarettes, clothing and food. She could not be a mentor to the Lost Boys. She was told she could mentor people from other countries, but she refused.
"After I saw the video, I called every friend, every family member, everyone I knew, and we all got involved," said Moreno. "None of us had money to give, but we did what we could to help."
Moreno recruited Virginia Bell from the Hosanna Lutheran Church in Liberty, who, together with her women’s group and Dan-D Services, eventually paid back the airfare for all the boys in Kansas City. With up to nine boys living in an apartment, Moreno and those she recruited to help, including her best friend Susie from her hometown of Clinton, went into the apartments and discovered the horrible living conditions the boys were in.
"They didn’t even know how to work the alarm clock," said Moreno. "One would stay up all night and watch the clock, waking the others when it was time to get up."
The volunteers Moreno brought together pooled their resources and furnished the boys with food, clothing, blankets, toiletries and other necessary items.
"It took a long time, and we separated the donations in our office," said Moreno. "We’d then take all the donations around to the boys, and take everything in and show them how to use it."
They also established 100 Hot Dog and 100 Hamburger nights, where the boys would learn to cook hot dogs and hamburgers, and it became a regular night for Moreno’s volunteers and the Lost Boys. Over the years, Moreno became known by the boys as Gina Mama Kansas City. She continued to help them out with their needs, and they became a part of her family.
"The experiences that we’ve had, just having them in our lives, has made a huge difference," said Moreno. "They’re not just the Lost Boys of Sudan. They’re grown men and they are a part of our family. God put me there, I believe, at a moment in my life to give me the part of myself that was missing and to let me be fortunate enough to take this journey with them."
A lot of the boys are still in contact with Moreno and her family. Some still rely on her for advice. Joseph is currently in another country working on his education to become a doctor. Most recently, a film was released that was loosely based on Moreno’s story with the Lost Boys, called The Good Lie.
"I’ve stayed out of the spotlight, I’m better in the background," said Moreno. "There have been so many laughs, and so many tears. I would not have changed anything. I didn’t save them, these boys saved me."