Partnership is the key word in The Fuller Center for Housing’s philosophy of helping families help themselves. Families are not only expected to be full participants in the building process, but they also must pay the work forward to help others know the joy of having a simple, decent place to live.
That partnership was clearly on display last week in North Chicago, Illinois, as The Fuller Center Hero Project of Lake County, Illinois, dedicated its second home — a renovated former vacant property that is now a beautiful new home for Josh and Shakea Franklin and their children Anyla, 8, Jaydin, 6, and Jelanni, 2.
Josh is the program coordinator for enrichment programs at North Chicago’s A.J. Katzenmaier Elementary School. He and wife Shakea are active in the community where Josh grew up, and they are determined to see it grow into a healthy, thriving community.
But other partnerships are driving the success of The Fuller Center Hero Project’s work, from local churches like Christ Church (which helped get the Franklins’ home built) to Lakeview Construction (which employs Shakea and the project’s first homeowner partner, Barbara Jenkins) to the North American Retail Hardware Association and its affiliated stores in the area.
Fuller Center President David Snell was on hand for Thursday’s dedication of the Franklin home and said that the Hero Project’s success is a result of what he likes to call “providential confluences” — starting with the local leadership.
“There are lots of providential confluences attached to this project,” Snell said just before the Franklins received the keys to their new home. “The first one was actually hooking up with Ronnel and Yvette Ewing, who are spearheading the project. They had a keen interest in neighborhood development. They do a lot with neighborhood gardening, and they see The Fuller Center and the housing piece as a natural companion to the gardening program.”
Though the support The Fuller Center’s work has gotten from the NRHA, area business leaders and state and local government, Snell said that a Christian ministry most crucially needs buy-in from local churches determined to put faith into action. He said that has not been a problem in Lake County.
“The church has come forward, and that’s really what’s going to make this a success — the engagement of the church community,” he said. “Bringing those churches together is what really makes it happen.”
Among the churches that has stepped forward is Christ Church, based in nearby Lake Forest with a second campus in Highland Park. David Weil, Executive Pastor for Ministries, also was on hand Thursday to welcome the Franklins to their new home. He said for communities like North Chicago to succeed, they just need to follow the biblical concept of “love thy neighbor.”
“When you have a sense of community, there’s a sense in which you look after each other,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping to see more of — a sense of community where you just know your neighbors, you love your neighbors, you care for your neighbors. When we can do that and we can keep encouraging that through great families like Josh and Shakea, everything begins to change.”
The Franklins have long since adopted the “love thy neighbor” concept, and they see becoming homeowners as not just a blessing for themselves but a springboard to continue blessing others.
“Our family, we’ve just been trying to give back whatever gifts and strengths that we have that the Lord has blessed us with, trying to give back to the community — trying to be a voice and a positive role model,” Josh Franklin said. “As you guys see, it’s not all negative that comes out of North Chicago. You can really grab something very positive out of North Chicago.
“We’re truly blessed,” he added. “You think about the doors of opportunity, and you think about working for the Lord and not looking for a gift. But I really feel like we received a gift through The Fuller Center and through Christ Church because if we were to walk into a bank and asked for a loan for the home, we probably wouldn’t have received it. … They really took us in and heard our story and saw where we were coming from so they gave us the opportunity. We just ask the Lord in blessing us with this home that He keeps us able to keep helping out North Chicago.”
“What we do is really not the house,” said Fuller Center Hero Project’s Ronnel Ewing. “It’s partnering with wonderful families that you are proud to have in your community. This family is already giving back to the North Chicago community. Before North Chicago gave to them, they gave to North Chicago. This is not a handout; it is a hand-up. We are all partners in this.”
Barbara Jenkins knows how the Franklins feel about giving back to their community and paying forward their blessings. She and husband Jacorey struggled for years as they tried to raise their three children — ages 14, 9 and 4 — in poverty housing as they struggled to find employment. Her children narrowly avoided tragedy when they were up-close witnesses to a drive-by shooting in the housing project where they lived.
But Barbara found work at a local call center for Lakeview Construction and she and Jacorey worked alongside volunteers to renovate a once-vacant home in Waukegan, where the Hero Project is based. Today, Barbara manages the call center in Waukegan, while Jacorey has landed a construction job utilizing skills he learned while working on their home. It’s all part of the Hero Project’s Working Families program. (They also have a Wellness program with a strong focus on community gardening and nutrition.)
“They are helping you learn the necessary life skills about everything from praying with you to opening opportunities for training to financial classes to anything that you’ll need,” Barbara said. “They are just a phone call away. They’re giving you the tools that you need to take what they teach you and put it out into the community and go help someone else and bless someone else.”
Yvette Ewing, Executive Director of The Fuller Center Hero Project, is proud of her Wellness program’s success — including its four community gardens, a 4-acre farm and having shared 125,000 pounds of fresh food with families in the food deserts of Waukegan and North Chicago. But she said bringing The Fuller Center to Lake County to address the housing crisis has been a godsend and a springboard to further partnerships that are changing lives.
“There are 4,000 abandoned or foreclosed homes in Waukegan — and we’ve got people homeless?” she said, noting the great opportunity to turn vacant houses into decent homes for families. “Something’s wrong with that. And we’re hoping to fix it.”
Snell said that even though The Fuller Center Hero Project has gotten off to a fast start, the Lake County area is primed for much more success in addressing the community’s housing problems.
“They’re just sort of amazed at how everything has come together for them to be able to dedicate two houses in quick succession, and they’re getting ready to start a big project here that will put a number of families into a decent home,” Snell said. “It’s interesting how the Lord just builds and builds if you let it happen and do some hard work to make it that way.”
A VIDEO UPDATE ON THE FULLER CENTER HERO PROJECT’S FIRST PARTNER FAMILY: