SPECIAL REPORT: How Louisville is resurrecting lives, communities

SPECIAL REPORT: How Louisville is resurrecting lives, communities

When Connie Cash got her first look at the vacant house that was slated to be renovated into a new home for her and her two young children, she admitted to having a few doubts. Joe “JoJo” Thomas, though, was more blunt about how he felt upon seeing the vacant house The Fuller Center for Housing of Louisville had selected for him.

“I’m gonna be kind of candid about the situation about when I first was brought over to the house,” the 61-year-old warned. “When they first told me I had a house, my expectations were sky-high, so when I was brought over to the house, I was like, ‘What? Oh no! Man, I’m not gonna live in there!’”

The Fuller Center for Housing’s Save a House/Make a Home initiative takes donated vacant properties and turns them into decent homes once again. Often, these properties are considered “toxic assets” by banks or investors. More often, they are considered virtually worthless. Having come to Louisville nearly four years ago as a homeless Army veteran, Thomas decided that if he could make the transformation out of addiction and homeless, the property could have a similar change.

“I have a connection with God, and what God revealed to me is ‘JoJo, you looked just like that when you arrived here in Louisville, and look at you now,’” Thomas said. “That made me understand that just because the house looked like that when I first got to it don’t mean that it’s gonna look like that after we’re finished. I’m happy.”

Though Cash is thrilled with the home that was dedicated April 19, 2013, for her and her two children — 5-year-old Sania and 1-year-old Cruz — it took time for her to see the property’s potential.

“I was skeptical about the program at first,” she said of Save a House/Make a Home. “When I first took a walk-through through the house, I was like ‘Oh, this is something else.’ But I look at the bigger thing. I was like, this house has potential. I never thought it would be where it’s at now. I’m shocked. … I love what The Fuller Center is doing, and I love what they did for me and my family.”

Greg Fischer also has bought into what The Fuller Center’s Save a House initiative can do and has done for the Shawnee neighborhood on Louisville’s West End. Elected mayor in 2010 after a successful career as an inventor, entrepreneur and investor, Fischer was concerned about the number of boarded-up homes in the city, particularly on the West End of town where The Fuller Center works.

“What I love about Fuller Center is that it’s a great use of existing property, so we don’t have to start from scratch,” the mayor said. “It’s obviously more environmentally friendly to do it this way. But it takes advantage of homes that have good bones already and just brings them back to life. It really fits well into the fabric of the existing neighborhood, a very, very smart way to go about reuse.”

Fischer also has made compassion a common theme in Louisville, having set out on day one of his administration to make it “the most compassionate city in the world.” The dedication of Cash’s home came at the end of Give a Day Week, a program started by the mayor that encourages people to serve others or volunteer. During the 2013 Give a Day Week, more than 100,000 people in Louisville gave of themselves.

“One of the key drivers of our city is compassion, with lifelong learning and health there, as well,” Fischer said. “The thought is, look, we don’t have all the money in the world to solve every problem, but we should have unlimited compassion and empathy for our fellow human beings. And we bring that to life through service work and volunteerism.”

The Fuller Center is partnering with individuals, community leaders, churches and nonprofit organizations who share that prevailing sense of compassion to transform not just houses but also families and neighborhoods in Louisville’s West End.

 

TRANSFORMED LIVES

Like Thomas, Louis Alexander has been homeless and suffered through drug and alcohol addiction. Both got their lives back on track in Louisville with life skills training from Volunteers of America and addiction treatment by The Healing Place. Alexander, who has been sober since April 14, 2009, became a Fuller Center homeowner in December 2011.

“I never imagined in a thousand years that I would be a homeowner,” said Alexander, who spent decades addicted to alcohol, an addiction that left him estranged from his 31-year-old son. Not only has Alexander given up alcohol, but he holds a steady job and has repaired that relationship with his son.

“I feel like God gave me another chance — I’m not gonna say a second chance because he gave me so many chances in life,” Alexander said. “But this time I feel a whole different new way of living. I feel like I’m more responsible. I’m a taxpayer. I’m a part of something good now, and I’m giving back freely with no motives. I ask God every morning to put me around some special people in my life. And every day I run across somebody from The Fuller Center or another recovering alcoholic. We just give back. We help each other.”

Thomas will live just a few doors down from Alexander, whom he met through his own experiences with The Healing Place and Volunteers of America. Seeing the transformation in Alexander after he became a homeowner inspired Thomas to follow in his footsteps.

“I’m looking at Louis’ house, and Louis’ house looks exactly like my house,” Thomas said. “Louis and I come from the same cut, from the bottom of having nothing. … I’ve seen his growth, and him being a homeowner is unbelievable. Because who’d have thought Louis would have a house. It’s the same thing people are saying about me — who’d have thought JoJo would have a house.”

While Thomas and Alexander are single men owning small but decent homes, another VOA success story is Phonecia Carney, who is moving into a larger home with her three children — 14-year-old Jeremiah, 4-year-old Valajiah and 1-year-old Tristan.

“I never thought that I would be owning a home, especially as a single parent at 33,” said Carney, who like Thomas became a homeless veteran after leaving the Army. “I’m so amazed at the (Save a House/Make a Home) program. It’s a way for people who normally wouldn’t be able to buy a new house to be able to get a house. I love the program. It’s a great opportunity.

“To me, it’s the most wonderful feeling because they’ve got somewhere stable,” she added of her children. “We’re not constantly moving around. … It’s hard when you don’t have a home to go to, and you’ve got kids to raise. It’s very important to have a home.”

Cash, who now has a home big enough for her and her two children, said that a simple, decent home like The Fuller Center helps people obtain on no-profit-made, no-interest-charged terms they can afford is crucial to a child’s success and is something she didn’t have.

“I needed to make some kind of foundation for me and my children,” she said. “With me growing up and not having a real solid foundation, it kind of had me going different ways as far as school and education and all the other things.”

Cash came to The Fuller Center after graduating from YouthBuild Louisville, a nonprofit education, job training and leadership program for youths who may have fallen through the cracks. More than 320 participants have graduated from the program, with 86 percent earning their GEDs and at least 45 graduates going on to college. That includes Cash, who also served a year with AmeriCorps, giving an additional 1,000 hours of volunteer work for which she received a college scholarship.

“We’ve come full circle on this particular day,” an emotional YouthBuild Louisville Executive Director Lynn Rippy said at the April 19 dedication of Cash’s home. “Connie is a very special young woman. She graduated in ’09 from YouthBuild and went immediately to college. She is working now and going to college and raising her two kids, and she is one of the best moms I’ve ever met. It’s just very exciting to watch a young woman … be able to see her dreams become a reality. I just want to make sure you know who she is because she’s an incredible young woman.”

Rippy’s tears of joy for Cash are matched by the beaming smile on the face of John Launius, development manager for the local Volunteers of America. Launius said the success of people like Carney, Thomas and Alexander offers inspiration to those who worked with them and those who follow in their footsteps.

“These are clients who have continued to give back to Volunteers of America and to the community through volunteering, and to see this opportunity come together for these folks in particular is very meaningful not only to me but to our staff and our organization,” said Launius, who recently became a Fuller Center of Louisville board member. “It really gives us confidence in this community and our relationship with The Fuller Center and honestly with the folks that we serve. We let our clients know about the success of the people who have walked those paths before them. And our clients are just as excited to hear about these opportunities for Phonecia and for Joe and for Louis as we are.”

 

COMMUNITY TRANSFORMATION

With the exception of the Carney home on Algonquin Parkway, all of The Fuller Center for Housing of Louisville’s work takes place in the West End neighborhood known as Shawnee. In the mid-1900s, it was considered a desirable neighborhood. But as wealthier residents began to move to the suburbs, problems such as crime and deteriorating housing conditions set in. No place embodied the problems of the West End more than Boston Court.

“Boston Court was described to us as the worst neighborhood in town,” said Don Erler, a member of the board of directors for The Fuller Center for Housing of Louisville and one of the chief architects of the Save a House/Make a Home initiative as a member of The Fuller Center’s international board of directors. “We wanted to start in the worst area, so we went to the city and they said, ‘Why don’t you start down there on Boston Court.’ And that’s where we came in 2008. … This court used to be so dangerous. You literally could not walk from one end to the other without being solicited for drugs or prostitution or being accosted.”

In addition to The Fuller Center’s several Save a House projects on Boston Court, they’ve also built one new house and partnered with several existing homeowners to make Greater Blessing repairs on their homes. The work has paid off.

“It’s now a Neighborhood Watch area and is a very lovely neighborhood to live in,” Erler said. It’s certainly a neighborhood of choice. … The more time we spent down here, the more comfortable they became not only with us but also with each other. So we really transformed the tenor and the demeanor of this particular neighborhood. It’s a people place now that people love to live.”

Mayor Fischer’s face has become as familiar in the Shawnee area as it is downtown and at Louisville landmarks such as Churchill Downs, host of the Kentucky Derby. He got so excited about the transformation of Carolyn Mayes’ once-vacant home last year that he became the impromptu emcee at her home dedication. He did the same at the dedication for the Cash home. His effort to spread compassion through the city is not limited to prime real estate.

“Any good mayor needs to have a soul for the city,” Fischer said. “The city is all the faces and all the conditions that everybody is in. So, giving hope and rebuilding neighborhoods is a part of that, and I’m really glad to be a part of it with Fuller.”

The Fuller Center of Louisville, meanwhile, is not just working in the Shawnee area; it now is becoming a part of it. Last year, a property was donated in the neighborhood that was far too large to become a “simple and decent” home. So they decided to make the building their new headquarters. The renovation of the new headquarters is expected to be complete in May.

“First of all, all of our work’s going on down here,” Fuller Center of Louisville Executive Director Steve Marrillia said. “And all the people that we’re working with and all the organizations that we’ve aligned ourselves with work in this area.”

And if Marrillia needs any more inspiration to continue leading the transformation in Shawnee, all he has to do is look outside his window. From that vantage point, he’ll be able to see Cash’s home and can watch her children play outside.

 

PARTNERSHIPS KEY TO SUCCESS

The Fuller Center for Housing operates on a principle called Partnership Housing that founder Millard Fuller developed with Christian theologian Clarence Jordan at Georgia’s Koinonia Farm in the 1960s. By making potential homeowners full partners in the building process, they are able to retain their dignity. Also, homeowners are able to pay it forward as their no-interest, no-profit mortgage payments go into a Fund for Humanity to help others become homeowners.

But the partnership is not limited to The Fuller Center and its homeowners. The partnership includes nonprofits like Volunteers of America, which prepares wonderful homeowner candidates, and YouthBuild, which in addition to training young people for success also supplies teams of volunteers on Fuller Center builds. Churches, especially those in the Shawnee area, have been critical partners along with other nonprofits and civic organizations. And tackling such a major transformation within a city is much easier when city officials offer their full support as they have in Louisville.

Board member Erler praised Marrillia, Fuller Center of Louisville’s executive director, as a master at building partnerships. And according to Launius of Volunteers of America and Rippy of YouthBuild, those partnerships are only going to grow.

“This will not be the end for us in Shawnee,” Rippy said. “This is only the beginning. We are extremely excited about the opportunity to assist The Fuller Center in Shawnee and really bring this neighborhood back the way it needs to be brought back and to put strong people like Connie in these homes who will ensure that the neighborhood grows viable as a result of their leadership and their strong citizenship in the neighborhood.”

“The Fuller Center’s a great partnership for us because our organization works really hard and takes a holistic approach with clients to really make sure that they’re ready to live sustainably, to live independently, and The Fuller Center provides an opportunity for them to put those skills to work,” Launius said.

“For our clients, they’ve overcome a lot, and they continue to persevere and work on themselves for their families,” he added. “And for many of them the thought of owning a home was probably not there. To have an opportunity like this through The Fuller Center to not be given a home but to be given the opportunity for home ownership and to continue on that path of rebuilding that our clients have been on is pretty cool to put together, those relationships. The Fuller Center has provided those opportunities for our clients.”

But the partnerships that have proven the most successful for The Fuller Center — not just in Louisville but across the nation and around the world — are the partnerships with the faith community. One of The Fuller Center’s foundational principles is: “We are part of a God movement, and movements just don’t stop.”

The Rev. Derek Wilson of Spirit of Love Center certainly sees that from his vantage point in the Shawnee neighborhood.

“What’s going on is we really see the Lord Jesus Christ coming in in a mighty way,” Wilson said. “We talked about Ezekiel 37 and can these dry bones live again, and they are living. We thank God for The Fuller Center and what they’re doing. We’re seeing transformation happen in our community, and the mayor’s witnessing it, people in the community are witnessing it, people in the city are witnessing it. And we’re convinced that we’re going to see great transformation all through our community.

“We realize that when The Fuller Center first came into our city, they started here in our area, and they have been wonderful partners,” he continued. “And we have seen the love of Jesus and the unity of the spirit come to The Fuller Center and through people coming from different segments of society that want to help rebuild this community. And we can never say thank you enough for all that you all have done and the vision of Millard Fuller still being alive to help bring change in our community. We say thank you, thank you, thank you and God bless you in Jesus’ name.”

Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell preaches partnership building and is excited to see not only what Louisville has managed to accomplish so far but also its potential for growth. He cites The Fuller Center of Louisville as an example of what can be done through the Save a House/Make a Home initiative with the right partners.

“The mission statement of The Fuller Center says that our intent is to promote collaborative and innovative partnerships in an unrelenting quest to provide adequate shelter for God’s people in need,” Snell said. “What’s happening in Louisville is an outstanding example of our mission statement in action with all the different groups that have come together to make this project a reality and get these folks into decent shelter. It’s a tribute to the city of Louisville and all those who came together. It shows what can happen when more than one of us decides to do something good and good-hearted souls come together.”

 

RELATED LINKS:

Fuller Center for Housing of Louisville photo galleries.

Like FCH-Louisville on Facebook.

Louisville’s Carolyn Mayes, new home both stories of second chances.

Overview of the 2011 Derby City Build in Louisville.

VIDEO:

 

Chris Johnson
This post was written by
Chris Johnson is the Director of Communications for The Fuller Center for Housing, a multi-award-winning columnist for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer and author of 4 books.

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