“Very often, a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but a symptom,” said President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, one year after declaring a war on poverty.

“The cause may lie deeper, in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.”  

Unfortunately, this sentiment is as relevant today as it was 51 years ago. But on the South Side of Columbus, Ohio, USA, Chairwoman of the Board of Donatos Pizza, Jane Grote Abell, has created a national model to confront Johnson’s prescient remarks.  

It’s Elementary

The South Side is Jane’s old neighborhood, she grew up here on Thurman Avenue right behind her family’s first pizza restaurant. Once a robust, hard-working middle class community, it is now a place where one in four houses are boarded up, unemployment is at 22.5 percent and 40 percent of the kids move schools every year when their families lose their home.  

“These are really great people who have fallen on hard times,” says Jane, who in response, has founded Reeb Avenue Center with her friend, fellow activist and South Side family business owner Tanny Crane. The idea was a direct reaction to (then) Mayor Coleman’s asking Jane’s dad, Jim Grote – a quiet philanthropist for whom giving back is an inherent part of his narrative – to help champion a revitalization of the neighborhood. Jim knew it was something that would interest his daughter and Jane knew her friend Tanny would want to get involved and together with local community leader John Edgar they formed something of a philanthropic think tank. 

But it wasn’t until a 67,000 square foot, 110 year-old building that was once an elementary school lying fallow for five years fell into the mayor’s hands that the idea of creating a national model of a holistic, non-profit, community social-services center really started.  

“We looked at the situation as one would look at any business strategy,” explains Jane. “The very first thing we did was go door to door to the 2,700 families in the neighborhood to ask what they needed. As is often the case with even the most well-meaning people, what’s needed by a community isn’t necessarily aligned with what someone from the outside thinks is needed. What came out of it were five things: education, jobs, safety, health and affordable housing.” 

So Jane and Tanny put together a 20 person team including members of the neighborhood city commission, city council and private donors to start filling these buckets of change with palpable action.

A team was put into place to focus on housing and safety and blueprints for a free health clinic were drawn up. But when Mayor Coleman acquired an old elementary building, Jane and Tanny knew this was their opportunity to complete the circle, using the former educational institution to fulfill the education and jobs quotient.  

After USD12.5 million in renovations, including a near USD2 million donation from the Grote family, the Reeb Avenue Center opened in 2014 and houses 14 different non-profits, all focused on either helping people find jobs or education, with intentional pathways between tenants to serve the holistic needs of every visitor. In spring of 2016, members of the Obama administration paid a visit to Reeb and reported, “The good people in Columbus are leading the nation on the important work of giving all young children and their families- the high-quality early learning experiences they need to grow, learn, and thrive.” 

 

A Peek Inside Reeb

A bird’s view of the robust and visionary activity inside Reeb looks a little something like this:  

  • The Boys and Girls Club of Columbus provides youth development programming, which is particularly relevant given that 25 percent of youth ages 6-18 are not in school, are not high school graduates and are not employed.
  • Alvis, DigitalWorks and other partners offer job training, GED (general education diploma) classes and adult education, all of which increases employability.
  • South Side Learning & Development Center meets the early learning needs of infants through
  • pre-kindergarten, with rooms for second shift care, meeting the critical needs of working families and employers.
  • Mid-Ohio Foodbank and Community Development for All People collaborate on a food program that includes South Side Roots Café, a food market and kitchen operations for the building. The pay-what-you-can café offers the option to earn meal points by volunteering in the building, paying it forward or paying the subsidized prices.
  • St. Stephen’s Community House’s Family-to-Family program provides support to families suffering from abuse and neglect. 
     

“I think my biggest ‘ah-ha’ moment was seeing these non-profits excited about working together,” says Jane. “It is no secret that in the non-profit world, everyone, no matter their mission, is fighting for the same dollar. The beautiful symmetry of a place like Reeb is that it eliminates the competition by creating a space where everyone works together to support the community.”  

Co-creating a sustainable community has also allowed non-profits savings on their P&Ls – instead of having to invest in bus passes to get people from their GED training downtown to get food and then across town for drug and alcohol counseling, all they have to do is walk across the hall. Additionally, these non-profits are now mission driven outside of their silos; being in such close proximity to each other has opened their eyes to the ways in which they can work together to make a real difference. When you are able to offer someone the next piece of the puzzle to help them succeed in life, right then and there, the chances for success grow exponentially, impacting individual lives, entire families and whole communities.  

How Do We Really Talk About Ending Poverty?

“We won’t know the full scope of Reeb’s success until the next generation or the one after that, but we hope that our model – that of a collaborative society where non-profits work together – can inspire others to do the same,” says Jane. “While we also hope that we no longer have to have homeless shelters and food banks, for the time being, there are plenty of empty school buildings out there.” 

By Deborah Stoll