This summer, the effects of systemic racism have been driven to the forefront. At the same time in Akron, the LeBron James Family Foundation has been working on another way to fight inequality and help families out of poverty.
The Foundation started with the I Promise School, teaching disadvantaged Akron youth most at risk of being removed from school.
Today, the foundation welcomes its first families to the I Promise Village, a historic apartment building renovated to provide temporary stable housing for I Promise students and their parents who need it.
But it’s not just a place to stay. The village aims to help these families get their lives moving in a new direction.
Walking into one of the apartments in what used to be known as the Westmont, Erika Mayer, a member of the core leadership team at the LeBron James Family Foundation, describes what we see: a laundry basket on the coffee table full of hangers, dish soap, toilet paper. “We’ve got some cleaning supplies and other things to get them on their feet and get them started. So that’s going to be something that’s going to be provided when we do move families in,” Mayer said.
A major renovation of the 1920s era structure maintained much of its historical character, while adding new, functional things including hotel grade, durable furniture.
There are six units on the second, third and fourth floors of the four story building; some have two bedrooms, some have one bedroom, others are studio apartments. Each of the units includes a configuration of beds that can maximize the number of family members able to sleep there; some have double beds, some have bunk beds, every unit has a sleeper sofa.
Chicago-based Graduate Hotels did the work.
“They helped us by purchasing and planning this whole renovation of this historic building, which is four blocks away from our I Promise School, so our children can walk or ride their bike to school safely," LeBron James Family Foundation Executive Director Michele Campbell said.
Property records show the building sold for $850,000 last October. Campbell says Graduate Hotels paid a premium because the building was not for sale and they had to relocate residents. They chose this building because of its location on the south side of Market Street, so the I Promise students don't have to cross the main road to get to the school.
“They helped with the design. All the furniture, we wanted it to be new, [that] was important. Our families deserve new. Our families deserve everything that you see here, so they helped make that happen," Campbell said.
Campbell doesn’t have a number yet of just how much Graduate Hotels invested in the project. But earlier this month, they turned the building over to the Foundation. It’s getting into the housing business to help the families of I Promise School students. Erika Mayer says some are experiencing homelessness, but there are other situations they’ve seen—home invasions, house fires, domestic violence—that have created a need.
She shows us the intake room, where they'll also store extra supplies. The Foundation will take care of all the families’ needs. But for the families, it’s not a free ride.
“Every family’s going to be on a different family plan," Mayer said. "Because what one family needs and where they want to get to, is going to be completely different than another family. So they’re working specifically with each family as they move in, where are they and where do they want to go."
Michele Campbell says they're starting out slowly, so they can learn as they go. They have two families moving in today and others at different stages in the process. “We bring them here. We talk about it. We understand what they're going through, what their current living situation is, what they need as a family unit."
Those discussions lead to the development of a plan customized to the time and supports the family needs. "You're committing to a family promise plan, and you're committing to change. And that's scary," Campbell said. "That's because you're admitting, whether it’s you need your GED or whether you need to get more skills, so you can hold a stable job, whatever it might be. You're committing to doing that for your family.”
Mayer says the Foundation has developed relationships with the families that have allowed the families to feel safe and trust them.
Two Foundation staff members will live on site and there will be weekly supports for families. “Things such as life-coaching and counseling," I Promise Village Operations Manager Olivia Ayres said. "We are creating an I Promise garden that the families will be able to use to grow their own fruits and vegetables and then bring them back and provide for their family. And we’re bringing a chef in to help the families learn how to cook.”
When asked how involved LeBron James was in determining what was included in the space, Mayer laughed in saying, "He's kind of involved in everything." But the family influence included LeBron’s mother, Gloria James, who helped select décor and, as Michele Campbell notes, brought her own experience to the process.
“She has been through this. She knows firsthand what it means to grow up and not have a safe and secure home in Akron and have a son that you want to care for and provide everything for," Campbell said. "So listening to her, listening to our families, we designed what we heard."
Campbell says this model is a blueprint for tackling issues of inequality that plague the country.
“We believe the whole program that we're doing is addressing that. And we are very excited to keep growing with that. And now I believe we're at a place where we're going to start sharing what we are doing because we believe there's some basic foundation items here that every community should be doing.”
And the I Promise Village is now a part of that, what Campbell calls, "One piece of a bigger puzzle that is redefining what our communities should look like."