New life for fire-damaged HomeTown community center in Aurora – Chicago Tribune

David Smith has reason to be excited, and yes, a little nervous.

That’s because the 53-year-old man from Aurora is investing heavily in a real estate venture that he hopes will pay off big. And he’s not talking about the $20,000 of his own savings that has already been invested in this project.

The founder of At Risk Mentoring, a six-year-old nonprofit that has made a significant impact in at-risk neighborhoods with its mobile computer labs, is now deeply committed to the next stage of the mission.

Smith’s nonprofit now has its own home, thanks to the HomeTown subdivision developer who donated a 3,000 square foot building to At Risk Mentoring.

The catch – the property has sat idle and is in serious need of renovation following fire damage in January 2018.

The two-story structure had numerous code violations, many of which were supported by the Bigelow nonprofit that owned it. But the cost of preparing for the occupation is $195,000.

Which could make most jaws drop. But not Smith, who saw an opportunity to expand his nonprofit’s vision into an “exciting third stage.”

The second step, you may recall, was the purchase of a mobile tech bus a few years ago that included state-of-the-art workstations, as well as custom seating, access Internet and printing, and a large audiovisual screen in the classroom. system for its mentorship program which focuses on low-income housing complexes.

One neighborhood that has also benefited from Smith’s involvement is HomeTown, a far southeast subdivision of Aurora known for its diverse affordable housing and compact design that promotes connectivity among residents.

But HomeTown has not been without its share of crime, which came to a head in the fall of 2019 when a daylight shooting was caught on camera and led to a series of town hall meetings with police and law enforcement officials. town.

As a contractor working with the city’s community services department, Smith, 55, was already present in HomeTown, helping with food drives, the Halloween “trunk or treat” event and movie nights. But after the high-profile shootings, he brought At Risk and his computer coding camps to the kids there. And it didn’t take too many meetings with residents, he told me, to realize “there was a stronger neighborhood vibe” in this development that prides itself on working together.

That’s why when HomeTown developer Perry Bigelow approached Smith about offering him the community center – formerly known as The Cafe but more recently as “an eyesore” by residents – Smith saw the offer as a boon”.

Bigelow too.

“It’s a load of dynamite,” the developer said of Smith’s energy level, adding that by donating the building, “I could help him expand on the positive things he was already doing in the community”.

Teasa Ezeh, leader of HomeTown’s neighborhood group, the Community Support Team, is also motivated as she has worked with Smith for many years and has already seen the power of his personality when it comes to helping children. .

This new center of activity, she insisted, “will be the heart of the community.”

Last Saturday, Smith invited HomeTown residents to Holiday Park Gazebo to share his vision for the building, which will include offering the basement to other nonprofits that could benefit from the open space. . He also begins prayer walks. And this weekend, demonstration work at that lower level will begin, thanks in large part to Rebuild Together Aurora, a nonprofit that works with professional tradespeople to improve neighborhoods.

“We had never had our own space before, but instead relied on community centers — like Eastwood and Randall West — who gave us the keys to the building,” Smith said. “Now that we have our own centre, it’s time to pay it forward.”

Smith has already dipped into her own savings for a new air conditioning and heating system. And, after learning on Thursday that a grant he applied for hadn’t materialized, “I may have to go back personally for some more seed money to get this up and running,” he said. he admitted.

“It’s a leap of faith for sure,” Smith agreed, but quickly added that he remained optimistic that fundraising and donations through the At Risk Mentoring website would materialize, and that his goal of being operational by the time school starts is achievable.

Aurora Ald. 3rd Ward’s Ted Mesiacos, who describes Smith as “very resourceful” and with a “positive track record,” also appreciates that he “doesn’t back down” from obstacles that others might run away from.

“David has his foot on the accelerator and he’s not waiting for all the moons to align,” Mesiacos said. “What I love about him is that he doesn’t just run away from a challenge. The ones who care are the ones who stay.

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Jill E. Washington