On the day when Michael Jackson would have turned 56 years old, throngs of fans gathered outside the late King of Pop’s boyhood home at the end of Jackson Street in Gary, Indiana.
Yet, there was even more commotion going on across the street. Directly across the street, Fuller Center for Housing volunteers were hammering away on the first new home built on Jackson Street in six decades. Along the same street just a block away, saws whined and air compressors roared as Fuller Center volunteers were turning two of Gary’s many vacant, boarded-up houses into decent homes once again.
The Jackson Street of Dreams Build held during the last full week of August planted new seeds of hope in a city desperately in need of it. And it let the people of Gary know that there is a helping hand extended their way — all those willing to help themselves have to do is seize it.
“There’s a lot of people here that need a hand-up and a lot of folks here who have forgotten how,” Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell said while taking a short break from working on one of the rehab rojects. “One of the things that I think The Fuller Center brings is that it helps people learn that they can do more than they think they can. They learn that they can pick themselves up and do things a little bit better.”
The Fuller Center’s work drew a lot of attention from people who had come to Jackson Street merely to mark the festivities surrounding Michael Jackson’s birthday week — including Katherine Jackson, matriarch of the famous musical family. Mrs. Jackson showed Snell around the family’s former home and expressed her appreciation for helping the neighborhood in which she raised her children in the 1950s and 1960s.
Mary Singer and her daughter Rebecca also took note of the work on Jackson Street. The two die-hard Michael Jackson fans — whose SUV bore multiple Jackson images — had driven up to Gary from St. Petersburg, Florida, for the second straight year to mark the birthday. Last year, Jackson Street was a much sadder stretch.
“I think it is absolutely fantastic,” Mary Singer said. “And it’s not a handout but a hand-up to people who need help. This is something that he would have embraced because he was always for helping other people. He would have loved it because this will give kids homes.”
A few hundred feet up the street, resident Gary Bullard was taking notice of the renovation work going on across from his house. Though he was no fan of Michael Jackson, he is a fan of the changes going on in his neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of improvement going on,” he said. “I’ve been watching. They’ve been getting down with it. Much better than it looking like a slum.”
Gary was once a thriving industrial city, its fortunes soaring with those of the steel mills that populated its north end. But as the mills faded, so did the city’s fortunes. Pessimism and skepticism settled throughout the neighborhoods of boarded-up homes and along the empty storefronts with their broken windows and crumbling facades.
The pessimism was just as prevalent outside the city. A year ago, when The Fuller Center announced it would accept an invitation to partner with local groups to help Gary, one online commenter from Indiana had a different suggestion: “What Gary needs is a bomb dropped on it.” Such comments just get third-year Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson even more determined to prove naysayers wrong.
“When I hear comments from people who don’t believe that there isn’t any hope for Gary, then I understand that they really don’t know Gary,” said the Harvard Law School graduate who in 2011 became the first African-American female mayor in the history of the state of Indiana. “They haven’t been here. They have seen the parts of Gary that are vibrant, where people have maintained their property. And they don’t understand the richness of our history.”
She believes people should extend a helping hand — something she did on the work site all week long, leading by example.
“The Bible really teaches us to have compassion for one another. It’s a sense of when someone’s down, you kick them. But that’s not what you’re supposed to do. When someone’s down, you help them. And you allow them the dignity to also help themselves. I think that’s what this is about.”
John Pippins is one who has seized upon the opportunity to help himself. The 51-year-old military veteran kicked the bottle three years ago, spent a year in community college and now works a full-time job. Until three weeks ago, he had a 15-mile round-trip bicycle ride to work before finally being able to purchase a pickup truck. A week later, he was selected as a homeowner partner for one of the two rehab projects.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said Pippins, who recently joined New Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, which is led by Fuller Center of Gary President Chet Johnson. “My head is on straight, and I’m doing the right things now. So this is a great opportunity to jump-start my life. For me, this is the first time that I’ll be owning a home, so it’s not just a blessing for me but a blessing for my children also. They think it’s great. It’ll be the first Thanksgiving, hopefully, that they’ll be with me.”
Pippins is enjoying his second chance at a career and as a father to his five children — ages 11, 28, 29, 30 and 32. He also sees The Fuller Center’s work as a second chance for the struggling city that he loves.
“It’s definitely a seed, and I hope it’s a seed that gets watered and people jump on board,” he said. “This is great. I was born and raised here. I love this city. All it needs is for people to jump on board and don’t look for a handout but look at it as a way of building not just themselves but building up everything around them. If people can see that, the project will be a success.”
FROM SKEPTICISM TO SUCCESSS
The Fuller Center is not the first nonprofit to try to help the residents of Gary, but the policy of only offering a hand-up instead of a handout may be a bit unusual in the city. But because no one is against helping people help themselves, The Fuller Center’s approach has shattered walls of skepticism and brought in tremendous support from a range of groups.
NIPSCO (Northern Indiana Public Service Company) donated $50,000 toward the Jackson Street of Dreams project, while Centier Bank made a $10,000 donation. Inmates from the Indiana Department of Correction not only raised more than $53,000 for the project themselves, but vanloads of inmates also volunteered on the project, working the final weeks alongside Fuller Center volunteers from across the nation. In addition, The Fuller Center’s work has enjoyed great support from Gary’s faith community and government — from Mayor Freeman-Wilson to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who visited the site on Wednesday.
But to keep the momentum going, residents needed to witness tangible results. Now they merely need to go to Jackson Street to see that The Fuller Center’s model works. All that’s needed now is for the community to embrace it further.
“What has happened this week is an awareness of what can be done when people come together to make things happen,” Fuller Center of Gary President Chet Johnson said. “This has truly been a blessing. It has truly set the stage for the people of Gary to see the value they have if we just rally together and see the purpose and the cause that drives and motivates those who make up The Fuller Center to be able to create something of worth and value to families and homeowners. That is what has happened here. We have much work to be done even in the area of Jackson Street. But the things that the volunteers did for us has really given us the launching pad that we need to take it even further.”
“You start with one house, spread the word, people see what we’re doing, and hopefully we get more people involved and others will follow suit and build up other areas in the city,” said Tonya Strahler, a volunteer who came from South Carolina after having been introduced to the affordable housing ministry through her involvement with the Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure.
“A place like Gary that’s in distress gets a lot of folks coming in to ‘help folks out,’” President Snell said. “Too often, those measures only go halfway and don’t get completed, so there’s a lot of room for skepticism in a place like this where disappointment has been so ripe. We faced that when we came. Folks said, ‘We’ll believe it when we see it.’ Well, now they’re seeing it. And folks are coming out. We’ve had people stopping by all the time, and we have people volunteering — folks from right here in Gary coming out to help get things done. So I’d say we’re on the right track. We need to keep it going, but we are demonstrating something real is happening here.”
Snell had just been paid a visit by the leader of the Junior ROTC at nearby Theodore Roosevelt High School who wanted to know if The Fuller Center might like to help him put more than 150 students to work in the neighborhood. The president connected him with Johnson, who assured him they can find a way to work together.
“We need more people to come forward and help carry the load, help pick up the cart and carry it,” Snell said. “And we need volunteers. We’re going to leave this place with a lot of work to do. We need people to get engaged.”
Johnson said that in addition to the people stopping along Jackson Street to ask him about what’s going on, he’s been approached by others throughout the city who are impressed that someone is truly making a change and not merely talking about it. He said he cannot take the credit.
“They comment on how grateful they are for what we’re doing in the area,” Johnson said. “They believe in what we’re doing and have confidence and faith in what we’re doing. But most of all, the confidence and faith is in God, who is the driving and motivating force behind all that we’re doing.”
Learn more about The Fuller Center of Gary, Indiana.
Below is a report from Chicago’s ABC-7. (Editor’s note: The report says The Fuller Center was giving away homes on Jackson Street. No Fuller Center homes are ever given away. The hand-up instead of handout approach means that families are full partners in the building process and pay zero-percent-interest, no-profit-made mortgage payments that go into a fund to help others become homeowners.)