Who is River of Refuge and What Do We Do?

River of Refuge is a nonprofit Kansas-City based organization which transitions homeless families with jobs from high-rent motels and shelters into permanent housing. River of Refuge has made a commitment to help the hidden homeless — families living for months, even years, at pay-by-the-week motels in Kansas City. There are dozens of these expensive, one-room motels in the metro area with families in crisis. They often pay $800 to $1,200 per month for a one-room living space.

Their children ride the bus to school and navigate after-school lives in a motel-room world. These families are the working poor, who can’t save enough for utility deposits, down payments or rent, but who earn just enough to disqualify them for food stamps or other state or federal aid.

River of Refuge purchased the former 150,000 sq. ft. Park Lane Hospital just outside the city limits of Raytown, in Kansas City, Mo. The former hospital is being converted from a community eyesore to a community asset that helps needy working families move to a “place of dignity.”

We provide lodging and services for the working poor, providing them with a direct alternative to pay-by-the-week living arrangements and giving them the opportunity to receive resources needed to be successful in permanent housing.

“Empowering working poor families with financial security through interim housing.”

“Empowering working poor families with financial security through interim housing.”


Power of Positive Thinking Has Fueled River of Refuge from the Start

The history of River of Refuge boils down to faith.

But the belief that things will work out for the best goes beyond the trust that River of Refuge founder and pastor, John Wiley, places in God. He also started River Church Family in Raytown, Missouri.

Wiley’s secular maxim – “When you set yourself to do what is obviously right, all the resources needed to do it will follow behind you” – has proven true repeatedly with River of Refuge in conjunction with another one of his core principles: “If I see a need in my community, then it is incumbent upon me to do something. I can’t just say, ‘somebody oughta,’ and then move on.”

The River of Refuge building, at 5155 Raytown Road in Kansas City, Missouri, is a bricks-and-mortar embodiment of Wiley’s belief in the power of doing good and of his desire to never pass the buck.

Sizeable last-minute donations more than once rescued Wiley’s audacious plan for a fledgling nonprofit to enter into a seven-figure purchase agreement for a dilapidated 150,000-square-foot complex that had at one time served the community as Park Lane Medical Center. River of Refuge paid off the building in 2021.

Wiley’s desire to rehab the old hospital grew out of his church’s effort to help the working poor escape what he considered to be an overpriced trap when they had no other recourse but to stay in an extended-stay motel. This was a hidden homeless population, he thought, when in 2008 he was startled to see a school bus dropping off students at the motel.

Church members began bringing food to the families, having restaurants to deliver meals as well, and sponsoring families to find lodging elsewhere. Wiley realized that this informal effort was unsustainable for the church, and that it was only a drop in the bucket, since River Family Church was just assisting families in one of several motels.


John Wiley’s dream for River of Refuge became a reality in May 2016.

That’s when River of Refuge began housing families on the first floor of the old medical office building, which is attached to the former five-story hospital tower. River of Refuge is in the final stages of adding rooms with a nearly $2 million renovation of the building’s second floor, bringing maximum capacity to nearly 160 children and adults combined.

Since the beginning, River of Refuge has creatively financed nearly $9 million in renovations by using tax credits issued through Missouri’s Affordable Housing Assistance Program. River of Refuge raises capital by selling the credits to businesses looking to reduce their tax liability.

Donations early on helped the nonprofit clean up the inside of the building, which was like a rainforest after the damaged roof left it exposed to the elements. Initial use of the tax credits financed a new roof for the medical office building and the former hospital.

In addition to the housing units, River of Refuge has its administrative offices, classrooms and common areas in the former medical office building. Through the years, River of Refuge has also obtained professional services, such as Web development, in exchange for office space it has provided to small businesses.

In a future renovation, River of Refuge would like to place affordable apartments in the former hospital tower. River of Refuge families could rent there once they have completed the program, and also receive support services from providers housed in first-floor office space.

The path to success has not come easy for River of Refuge, but in reflecting on more than a decade’s worth of work, Wiley could not be prouder of the outcome. The organization is serving families exactly the way he envisioned it would.

“I wanted them to live and eat for free. I wanted them to have their own bank account. I wanted them to save their own money. I wanted them to have their own independence, and to graduate,” he said. “I mean, I saw it. It was crystal clear.”


The origins of John Wiley’s ultimate success with River of Refuge date back to 1978. That’s when the University of Health Sciences, an osteopathic medical school in Kansas City, Missouri, opened the Park Lane Medical Center. It taught medical students and treated residents from Raytown and other surrounding communities.

The hospital eventually became part of Health Midwest, a nonprofit health system in Kansas City, and the financially struggling health system closed Park Lane in November 1999. Nashville-based HCA Inc. a for-profit hospital company, purchased Health Midwest in 2002.

Mother Nature and vandals took their toll as the building stood vacant, even as a local real estate partnership spied a redevelopment opportunity and purchased the building in 2008.

One day, as Wiley drove past the dilapidated old hospital, his “somebody-oughta” reflex kicked in as the thought popped into his head that a benefactor should purchase the hospital for the motel families.

“I heard myself talking to myself, and I realized, ‘That is me,’” Wiley recalled with a laugh. “You can’t see something, know what to do, and pass the buck. I thought, ‘Well, I will just go find who owns it, and go in there, and I will try and cut a deal.’”

That’s how he found himself in a downtown Kansas City office one day, throwing out an off-the-cuff offer of $1 million for the old hospital. He understood his proposed price to be just a fraction of what the partners had paid for the property, but the deal went through as the country was in the midst of the Great Recession.

Wiley and several associates had officially established River of Refuge as a Missouri nonprofit in February 2009, and with a handshake purchase agreement, they set about raising the $60,000 down payment Wiley had promised to the owners. They had two months.

Given his connections, Wiley had been confident he could raise the $1 million. But even coming up with the down payment proved challenging, and Wiley was still short of the cash even as he sat down for the closing.


John Wiley was still short of cash when he sat down to close on the purchase of former hospital that would become home to River of Refuge

It was then that the church secretary told him that someone was there to see him — a woman Wiley described as a salt-of-the-earth type from a blue collar family. She handed him an envelope with the $8,000 in cash he needed.

The Kansas City Business Journal lauded River of Refuge’s redevelopment of the old hospital by giving one of its real estate Capstone Awards in 2011.

But raising capital remained challenging, and after a few years, River of Refuge had barely made a dent in its remaining financial obligation on the building. Around that time, Wiley recalled, River of Refuge was less than a week away from missing a payment deadline and losing the building.

Despite the crisis, Wiley kept a speaking commitment at a conference in California — with the thought of one River of Refuge benefactor eating away at him on the plane ride out. The woman had donated $12,000 from her mother’s estate, and Wiley wondered how he could face her with the news that the nonprofit was shutting its doors.

Wiley told a pastor friend about the problems back home, after the fellow clergyman had asked why Wiley seemed a little off kilter. The pastor substituted in Wiley for the scheduled Sunday speaker at his 8,000-member church, and told his congregants that every dime raised that day would go to River of Refuge. Wiley flew back with the approximately $40,000 he needed.

The history of River of Refuge is “filled with these kinds of happenings,” Wiley said, and the two last-minute donations are just the big ones that have stuck with him. “Then there are all the little ones, which are just as important, that color the page.”

At the outset, Wiley thought they’d be housing families within a couple years. It took seven years. In the end, River of Refuge continues to be an extension of Wiley’s simple belief in the power of love.

“It’s a really simplistic view of life, but it’s extremely powerful,” he said. “And it’s that beauty and that power that has taught me that a million dollars will come because I love these people that I am helping. And the people around me see what I see. So when you (envision that), all things are possible to those who believe, right?”