You’ve probably heard of the Reeb Avenue Center, a south side community building and nonprofit collaboration that opened in a buzz last September. Just shy of its first anniversary, the center’s leadership has turned its focus to celebrating success stories, growing community buy-in and creating sustainability.
Board Secretary Jane Grote Abell says she and Board President Tanny Crane were giving a tour recently, when a young woman walked in with her 4-year-old daughter for a parenting class.
Property Manager Ally Smith had lunch with her and found out the woman was living in a homeless shelter. She had a job and was looking to better herself, so Smith took the time to determine how the center could wrap all of its services around her.
“That’s just one of the examples that happen every day, and I think it adds to the excitement of what we’re doing,” Abell says.
Abell, Crane and Smith want to ensure the Reeb Avenue Center is truly a community building.
“We were hopeful after our grand opening that all of the neighborhood would just come in the doors,” Crane says. “And so while we’re having increased traffic every day, very excited to see classes and graduations — our focus now is really on helping the community, our community, understand exactly what the services are in here, and ensure that they feel like this is their center.”
‘We couldn’t be all things to all people’
Several years ago, former Mayor Michael Coleman called for something different in the south side with the Southern Gateway Initiative.
The south side faces a crime rate twice the average of Columbus, one of the highest infant mortality rates in the U.S. and 72 percent of residents are classified as having very low incomes, among other issues.
“While we have a holistic approach, we recognized we couldn’t be all things to all people,” Crane says.
The Reeb Avenue Center focuses on education, workforce development and job training.
“We could have gotten lost if we didn’t have strategy around what was really needed in this building,” Crane says.
At first she says they worried about how to fill the building. But then they moved on to selectively thinking about what types of nonprofits would fit the needs of the community.
Some components critical to success were accessing the community’s needs by surveying 2,700 homes, as well as finding committed champions and a community asset that people believed in. Abell says the Reeb Avenue Elementary School had sat vacant for five years, but it had no vandalism, graffiti or broken windows.
Raising $12.5 million for construction and renovation for the 66,000-square-foot building was no easy task, and the south side initially was skeptical.
Smith says the building was a little overwhelming, but now people have started to feel welcomed and at home.
One of the biggest obstacles going forward, however, is to raise an endowment to make the building sustainable, Abell says.
“We need to make sure that the tenants in here are going to be here for the long haul for this community because the community deserves it,” she says.
Three to five years from now, Abell says, the mother dropping her child off at the learning center needs to still be employed and the child still in school.
The Reeb Avenue Center houses 14 nonprofits that are learning to cohabitate and collaborate.
“We hold tenant meetings every month, and we really strive for all of the nonprofits to work together and communicate together,” Smith says.
During one tenant meeting, Godman Guild shared that child care is a barrier for some women to join their program, Crane says. One of the center’s tenants is an early learning center, who offered to work on how to make drop-in child care a priority for those women.
The collaboration also has sparked initiatives.
The Godman Guild offers adult education and transitional workforce classes, and it co-created an opportunity with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank at the pay-what-you-can South Side Roots Café & Market, Crane says.
People work in the cafe to get experience, while developing their resume and undergoing training. Then, at the end of 60 days, someone can be placed in an appropriate job.
Abell says people also can earn points on their loyalty card by volunteering in the cafe, market or throughout the building. Then, they can use those points to earn meals and access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
“It is all about helping people with dignity and respect have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but not in a way that’s a handout — because this community does not want a handout,” she says.