ANDOVER — What do high school English students, youth soccer players, members of an east-side church and inmates of a state prison have in common? They’ve all benefited from Jeff Roper’s passion for helping people.
Roper seemed headed for a conventional business career when he graduated from the University of Kansas in 1979 with degrees in Political Science and English. He took a series of jobs in the private sector, working for a bank, discount footwear chain and business equipment manufacturer before spending 13 years as a marketing representative for Koch Industries.
He changed course in 1993, taking a fundraising job with The Hope Foundation for the Homeless in Dallas. In addition to allowing him more time with his young son and newborn daughter, the move gave Roper a chance to focus on people rather than selling things. He returned to Kansas two years later for a job as executive director of the Wichita Community Clinical AIDS Program, which provided comprehensive care to people suffering from the disease.
Roper went back to college at Wichita State University the same year, earning an education degree in 1997 and beginning his 25-year career with Andover schools. After two years at Andover Middle School, he moved to the high school and has been teaching English to juniors and seniors ever since.
I met Jeff in graduate English courses at WSU and went on to become his colleague in Andover, where his commitment to students and the written word is demonstrated daily. It extends out of the classroom, too; he coached girls and boys soccer teams at Andover for more than two decades, winning several coaching awards along the way. He’s also one of a select group of teachers chosen by Princeton University to help create college entrance exams each year.
Jeff followed yet another calling by becoming a vocational deacon at St. James Episcopal Church in east Wichita in 2011. On the third Sunday of each month, he leads the congregation in services at 8:30 and 10:45 a.m. He has also led Sunday school classes for middle and high school students.
Jeff began ministering to prison inmates after hearing a MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) advocate speak to Andover students. She shared the stories of two young men, the son she tragically lost and the man who unintentionally took her son’s life while driving impaired. Later, a colleague revealed to Jeff that the driver was his best friend through high school and college. Roper decided to visit the young man, Robert, in prison.
The two men spoke often after that visit. Robert, who was serving the last two years of his seven-year sentence at the Winfield Correctional Facility, requested Jeff as his regular clergyman.
Jeff talked to a retired prison chaplain about his experience and was encouraged to get in touch with the WCF prison chaplain. Soon, he was preaching once a month at the WCF chapel, to Robert and many others.
“Many have opened themselves to God, and through Christianity, they’re turning their lives around,” he said, adding that Robert is now out of prison, working and living as a law-abiding member of the community.
A group of inmates have formed a contemporary praise band that features electric guitar, drums and singing. “Some of the inmates are incredibly talented,” he said.
Jeff is involved in a capital campaign project to build a Spiritual Life Center at WCF. In it, inmates will be able to participate in educational programs, take college courses, earn a GED, receive counseling and attend church services.
He’s also enlisted parishioners at St. James to help supply WCF inmates with cards they can send to family members and friends, maintaining all-important contact with the outside world. Each of the facility’s 550 inmates may choose two cards per month. Anyone interested in contributing to the cards or capital campaign can contact Roper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With so many commitments, it’s no surprise that Roper has a supportive wife, Vicky, whose community-minded interests often overlap those of her husband. A former educator herself, Vicky has worked as the program director for Kansas Children’s Services fighting child abuse for the last twelve years.
Jeff wishes he could minister to the WCF inmates more than once a month. Nevertheless, he said, “I feel like I’m receiving so much from the inmates who pour their hearts and souls into the services. I’m thankful for the fulfilling connections.”
Contact Julie Hying at email@example.com.