CHICAGO – It’s hard to be a kid in the inner city of Chicago’s South Side.
“We have so many children who don’t know how to ride bikes, jump rope, play volleyball or other activities because of society today in our low-poverty communities,” said Chicago resident Latanya Wells .Youngsters don’t know how to do kid-centric outdoor activities because other adults like her say, “I’m afraid to have my grandson outside. We don’t have safe streets, sidewalks, parks or safe anyplace outside.”
So kids stay inside, where usually – but not always – they’re protected from the ever-present gang violence that too often adds splotches of blood-red to poverty’s dirt-gray hopelessness.
Wells knows Chicago. She was born there, married her husband Tony there in 2000. The couple had five daughters before he was shot and killed in gang-related violence in 2007.
It’s hard to be an adult in this metropolitan area of nearly 9 million people, with its 40 percent unemployment rate and 20 percent poverty rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Before the mid-1960s, Blacks in Chicago thrived in segregated yet pick-yourself-up, two-parent homes in family-centered communities, said Shelby Steele, a filmmaker who was born in Chicago.
“I never saw a fistfight. I never heard a gunshot, until I was 18,” Steele said in a Rooftop Revelations video conversation on foxnews.com with Corey Brooks, pastor of the Southern Baptist New Beginnings Church and visionary behind the Leadership and Economic Opportunity Center.
Steele said he believes well-meaning programs meant to alleviate poverty have led to dependency, which turned to hopelessness in people who see no way out of their circumstances.
“You are standing for something that is just enormous, revolutionary: the idea of self-help, the wave of Black America to overcome its history of deprivation,” Steele told Brooks. “Thank you for that.”
Brooks set out to spend 100 days – Nov. 20 to Feb. 28 – on the rooftop of the property where he plans to build the Leadership and Economic Opportunity Center as a safe place where kids and adults can have fun and also learn sports and skills that will enable them to start and work at businesses and trades that will improve the area’s standard of living.
Brooks’ goal was to raise the $35 million for the Opportunity Center within 100 days, but when only a third of that had come in, the pastor said he decided to stay on the roof until the rest came in.
He’d been studying in Nehemiah, the pastor said.
“The passage where he says I am doing a great work and can’t come down really stayed in my spirit,” Brooks said. “I have stopped focusing on [asking] individuals to be part of this, and put all my focus on God. I pray people don’t give a dollar more or less than God asks them to.”
Bill O’Kane was one of several who spent one night with Brooks. O’Kane started Group Fox Management Services in 1978. The company now owns 30 apartment buildings, all but two in north Chicago. He’d heard of Brooks from watching Fox News, which each evening airs video segments from the rooftop.
“I think he’s trying to help fix the world,” O’Kane told Baptist Press. “I think he’s a good guy. He’s real.” The men talked for about four hours one night before calling it a night and retreating to Brooks’ four-person waterproof tent.
The men discussed the educational, social and emotional needs of youngsters and teens as well as adults.
“I think it’s strange,” O’Kane said. “In 50 years, nothing has changed. Kids are not engaged, and a lot of that is their family life. Gangs provide a family, and they offer protection. …
“A lot of these kids don’t have a good situation at home and they go off to school and schools fail them too. … What chance do they have?”
The new Leadership and Economic Opportunity Center is to include a vocational school, entrepreneurial and digital center, gymnasium, fitness center, swimming pool, theater/music/arts center, health and wellness center, safe social gathering spaces and more.
Brooks began on Chicago’s south side in 2000, when he started New Beginnings Church, which now meets in a former bowling alley/skating rink, with space for its many ministries: food, clothing, K-8 Christian education, music/dance studio, fitness center and vocational training. The church recently graduated its sixth class of construction workers.
The church’s Project HOOD – Helping Achieve Our Destiny – started in 2013. Project HOOD believes “Everyone is worthy of love and opportunity, and capable of turning their life around. We show up for those with no one else to turn to. Nobody is a lost cause.
The opportunity center is the next step toward self-actualizing people to reach their full potential, to the betterment of Chicago and the nation, Brooks told Baptist Press.
“In our community – 80 percent of Woodland adults are single parents – one of the reasons we have so much crime is a lack of opportunity and lack of businesses,” Brooks said. “We’ll also have a trauma center to help people deal with what they’ve gone through. A lot of kids have had friends and family members killed, and they’ve never dealt with the trauma.”
O’Kane said he was going to ask people he knows in the construction industry to help lessen costs for the Opportunity Center.
“Nobody succeeds alone,” O’Kane said. “If everybody pitches in, that’s how you get stuff done.”
Wells knows the difference the Opportunity Center will make for her five daughters, grandson and others in the community. She had to go to the suburbs 15 years ago, when her daughters were teens and younger, to get training in the medical field. Today she’s a nurse in a central Chicago hospital.
“I think the center will make a mindset change in teens and especially adults,” Wells said. “First off, we have a lot of ex-felons and ex-gang members who have turned their life around tremendously. The society won’t allow them a second chance of life, but we can’t judge on folks’ past, on who they became and grew into as men and [women], on who they were as children. Building the community center will open doors and be life-changing to these individuals as well as our children.”
Wells explained how change happens:
“When you start taking care of yourself, you start feeling better, you start looking better, and you even start to attract better,” she said. “It always starts within you. It takes a start, it takes help, it takes a village, and I know it can be done. Pastor Brooks has been a great support to the Woodlawn community, a father to the fatherless including all five of my children and my grandson.
“He’s making a difference and a new beginning in the Woodlawn community. It’s never too late for a new beginning.”