In the southeastern corner of the State of Wyoming, there is a mountain
range known as the Medicine Bow Mountain Range, in Medicine Bow National Forrest. Medicine Bow Peak is the pinnacle of this range, its body made up of massive granite cliffs that tower over the tree line below. At an altitude of over 12,000 feet, it is the tallest peak in Southern Wyoming. At its base are dozens of crystal clear glacier lakes, only adding to the serenity of the place. In June of 2013, I visited the mountain with several of my friends. The five of us were working on a ranch nearby and decided to spend our day off hiking to the peak. We had to leave our ranch early so that we didn’t get caught on the mountain when the early afternoon storms hit, as they often do in the summers there. As 8:00am rolled around, we were already on our way to the base of the mountain. However by 10:30am, a storm had begun to form on the other side of the peak. We could see that it was forming, but decided to carry on and only turn back if things got too dangerous.
As fate would have it, we met an old man resting on a large rock on the side of the trail. He asked where we were going and when we told him we were headed to the top, he told us something that I will never forget. He said, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” I had never heard this quote before and for some reason it stuck with me. We carried on, mostly unaffected by the warning, and soon found ourselves about 1/3 of the way up the mountain. Then it happened. Lightning struck and a huge clap of thunder followed instantaneously. Without hesitation we turned around and ran back down the granite rock path, terrified. Granite is nature’s lightning rod so I knew we needed to find a safe place as far down the mountain as possible. After running for what seemed like an hour, we made it back to the car safely yet shaken. I was humbled by our foolishness and decided that next time I would remember the old man’s words and exercise discretion when necessary.
This story may seem unrelated to what I am going to discuss in this paper since I did all of my fieldwork and research in the heart of a blighted urban neighborhood in north Saint Louis. The truth is, the moral of my story and the actions of the three individuals, who I worked closely with, are on opposite ends of the spectrum. They are my inspiration behind this paper and the visionaries who are leading the charge straight up the mountain and into the heart of the storm.
The goal of this essay is to illustrate that healing and redevelopment in a blighted urban neighborhood can be achieved on a large scale by individuals with great ideas and aspirations who seek to serve their community by putting others first. This project will deal directly with three organizations in Saint Louis who have had great success, where people gave up their lives in order to help mend what they saw as a broken community.
Part II: The Beginning
Lucas Rouggly, founder of LOVEtheLOU, always had a sincere desire to do something more with his talents. The only problem was that he wasn’t exactly sure what that might involve. Rouggly had a vision of a profession where he could spread love and unity by starting at the most basic level: the community. He thought that if he could implement a plan that involved community development and involvement, he could achieve what he had always wanted. His family was small at the time and so was his bank account. Now his family is bigger and his bank account, well, I can’t imagine it has grown by any substantial measure, but that is neither here nor there. But his desire to positively impact people’s lives that needed it the most had a light at the end of the tunnel. That light would later materialize as LOVEtheLOU.
A pastor by trade, Lucas moved to St. Louis with his family and began working right away. He established LOVEtheLOU as a non-profit organization out of his house on Enright Ave. He began recruiting people to work with him from all over. The two people he eventually selected to join his efforts were Jake Barnett and Korri Sears, two young, hard working individuals dedicated to the idea Rouggly had come up with. These three make up a rather unlikely team. They are all relatively young and inexperienced people. Jake is originally from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin but came to Saint Louis to play basketball at Saint Louis University. Lucas and Jake met through a prayer group that Jake attended and Lucas ran out of his house in north Saint Louis. The two became friends and Jake started coming to north Saint Louis more regularly. That was around the time when LOVEtheLOU had its genesis. Curiously enough, the first time I met Lucas was back in 2012 when he and Jake were eating lunch on SLU’s campus. I had just finished eating and was walking out when Jake called me over to his table to introduce me to his friend, Lucas. My first impression of Lucas was that of a friendly, happy guy who seemed excited just being there. I told Lucas that I was studying Urban Affairs at SLU and a little bit about my interests in St. Louis urban development. After listening to me for a minute or so, he gave me his card and told me to call him if I ever needed a job. Fast-forward to April of 2015 and here I am, working with someone I met in passing at lunch one day. As it turns out, the day I met Lucas was the day he told Jake about his brand new non-profit called LOVEtheLOU. That day, Jake became LOVEtheLOU’s first employee. Next up was Korri. Korri was working for her church at the time when Lucas recruited her for his team in 2014. Korri heard of Lucas though mutual friends in their spiritual community who recommended that she explore what this “LOVEtheLOU” thing was. She was looking for a job at the time and after talking with Lucas about his new nonprofit, she couldn’t help but join the two-man team. So two years after its birth, LOVEtheLOU had its first team of employees. Needless to say, Lucas wasted no time putting them to work.
Part III: LOVEtheLOU
In December of 2014, I spoke with Jake about my desire to work in north Saint Louis and, more specifically, in a low-income neighborhood where I could make a tangible difference for the better. I approached him about my aspiration because I had previously spent time in the Enright neighborhood doing community service in the LOVEtheLOU gardens with my fraternity brothers. I spent that day weeding, building an irrigation system, cleaning out a decrepit house, and uprooting stumps with shovels and my bare hands. All in all, this type of work is not the most attractive and certainly left a toll on my body. However, I saw past the sweat and sore muscles. I could see what they were really doing in that neighborhood. On the surface, this work seemed insignificant to the much bigger problems that surround north Saint Louis. If you know anything about north Saint Louis, you know that uprooting stumps on an overgrown lot with literally half of a house standing next you because the other half broke off, is not that out of the ordinary. Community service groups are in north Saint Louis all summer long doing tasks not unlike those I did when I first visited LOVEtheLOU’s gardens. Yet there was something different about this service trip. I was able to see the future of the organization in a way that I never expected. I could see its authenticity spelled out clearly in the palpable work and difference this tiny nonprofit had already made in Enright. I knew then that this was a group of people who were driven by something bigger than themselves. The mere fact that Lucas was willing to move with his entire family, including four small children, into the belly of the beast where murder, gang related violence and crimes, and rampant drug use are prevalent was enough for me to accept his credibility as a proponent of change. His sincerity and the legitimacy of LOVEtheLOU were guaranteed in my mind from that point on.
My first official day of work with LOVEtheLOU began on a Tuesday in late
January of 2015. I met Lucas, Jake, and Korri in the basement of a church/coffee house called Crave Coffee House on Saint Louis University’s Medical campus. My first impression of their office was what most would consider out of the ordinary. Jake met me at the door and led me down an old staircase into an unfinished basement. I remember seeing three old chairs, a tank of propane, a popcorn maker, and a mound of stuff covered in a black sheet. I thought I had walked right into a scene from a horror movie. Thankfully, Jake led me down a short hall to where the real office was located. Their headquarters was a tiny room big enough for a table with four chairs and two desks. Yet, there was happiness in that little room. Each person knew and understood that their location in the basement meant poor internet connection and weird smells but they had a place that was all their own and that meant a great deal. I’m sure Steve Jobs would agree that one of the most important parts of creating something great is having a great idea to begin with. If the idea isn’t good enough it will fail. If it is good enough, the rest will fall into place. He began Apple in a garage. LOVEtheLOU is no different and I know that each member of the team knows the potential of their work and that is what keeps them from overthinking their old, smelly basement.
Over the next several months, I attended meetings every Tuesday in the Crave basement and was able to learn a great deal about the inner workings of LOVEtheLOU. In the beginning, we spent most of our time developing a new website that would enable people to donate, contact, and learn more about the organization. This process consisted of many hours of dialogue between all of us, bouncing ideas off of each other and offering our honest opinions. As can be expected, one person’s honest opinion may be in direct contradiction with someone else’s honest opinion. This made for tense situations at times but any disagreement was always settled in a mature and professional manner and nobody ever left a meeting angry with another member of our small team. Ultimately, we decided on a clean and simple design for the website that made navigation extremely easy. I was proud to be a large part in this decision but I cannot take all of the credit because this idea has been used by many of the other urban redevelopment initiatives within Saint Louis and other urban centers. I particularly liked the design that Urban Harvest used for their website. Urban Harvest is a nationwide urban gardening organization that has a branch (no pun intended) in Saint Louis. Their site is simple and well organized. LOVEtheLOU’s previous site was dark and grungy with an emphasis on an “underground” feeling. Their new website is bright and welcoming. This is fitting as they have more than just their foot in the door now. They are an official nonprofit organization, recognized by the Missouri Secretary of State, Robin Carnahan. They are anything but “underground.”
Other topics covered in meetings ranged from small things like which types of vegetables to grow in the gardens all the way to insurance. Each goal was broken up into individual tasks and delegated to each member of the team. Lucas takes the reins when it comes to any of the big decisions, like the acquisition of the newest LOVEtheLOU project, a building on N. Kingshighway Blvd. This building was given to LOVEtheLOU by a generous donor who wants to see it become a diamond in the rough for north St. Louis. It will serve as the incubator for LOVEtheLOU in multiple ways. Lucas has plans to remodel the building’s ten apartments on the second and third floor and then offer them to residents of north St. Louis who are below the poverty line. He hopes to have half of the apartments complete and ready for use by spring of 2016. This project requires new paint jobs, new flooring, new bathrooms, sinks, and some plumbing fixes. All of this will only be possible with the money raised by donations. That is where I come in. I have been given the task of raising $10,000 to put toward this project. LOVEtheLOU is 100% dependent on donations, making it an even more impressive feat that they have come so far. However, all of that could change with this new building. If all goes according to plan, the apartments will provide LOVEtheLOU with enough money per year to fund their other projects. As for the business spaces on the bottom floor, Lucas plans on making one of the spaces into the new LOVEtheLOU headquarters; taking them out of the basement and into their own, rent free space. The other three spaces will be given to entrepreneurs in the community who already have a business or business plan but need a space bigger than the trunk of their car. One space has already been reserved as a future coffee house/social meeting place where people can come together and grow closer as a community. Lucas plans on charging a small fee for the space and also providing the financial backing needed to get them off the ground. I have every bit confidence that they will succeed in this project. Through Lucas’s administrative and spiritual leadership, this team is well equipped to take on this next step in their growth and development. He opens every meeting with a prayer and has the last word at the end of each meeting. As the visionary, he has more political clout, as it were, but he rarely makes a decision without in depth consultation from Jake and Korri.
Next up is Jake. His official title is Director of Development. In a small nonprofit organization that has just gotten its feet off the ground, it is a difficult task to be the head of development but Jake takes everything in stride. What is even more impressive is that before he joined LOVEtheLOU, he had no previous experience or knowledge pertaining to the vast majority of what his job now entails. In an instant he was passed the baton and told to run with it. As head of development, Jake has three main objectives. The first is to build partnerships with outside organizations so that they can support LOVEtheLOU financially as well as with volunteers. The second is to tackle the arduous task of acquiring insurance for several parts of the organization as well as making sure they are properly organized as an official nonprofit organization. Lastly, he is in charge of leading volunteer groups when they come to the LOVEtheLOU gardens on the weekends. His main goal in this is to help build awareness and understanding of what life is like in a blighted neighborhood.
Finally, there is Korri. Korri spends most of her time doing the book keeping. Her official title is Director of Administration and like Jake, she has a heavy load. She spends much of her time emailing organizations that LOVEtheLOU works with, organizing times for them to come do service and scheduling meetings with prospective organizations. One of her main projects is called the Deuteronomy Project. This is a mentoring project that works with the kids and teenagers in the Enright community who are at risk of joining gangs, committing crimes, and/or dropping out of school. It is designed to give these kids hope and someone to whom they can come to when things get tough. This project is set to begin this summer and will require months of mentor training beforehand. Korri has played an integral role in orchestrating this program. She prepares the curriculum (with guidance from Lucas and Jake) and prepares the time and space to meet with both the mentors and mentees.
All of these tasks and more are organized in these weekly meetings and then
carried out during the week. It is truly amazing to watch everything from a third party perspective while also being an insider. If there is one question this paper will struggle to answer it is finding out where these individuals get their strength to carry on with such a lofty goal and heavy workload. When I ask, they tell me that they know they are working for something greater than themselves and the drive to continue comes from each other, the people they are seeking to help and God. I remember one Tuesday in late April when Jake came in with a bundle of bananas and about seven pounds of nuts. I asked where he got all that food and he told me, “dumpster diving.” I was shocked. So I asked him, “Where do you dumpster dive and why not just buy your food from the store?” He told me he goes to Aldi after hours when they throw away the food from the week and grabs it before it goes bad. Jake is by no means an unintelligent man. He could be doing many other things than working for a nonprofit that pays him $2000 a month. Yet he stays with it because he believes in something greater than himself. When I asked him why he stays in Saint Louis or why he doesn’t work somewhere that pays better, he always says the same thing. He says, “I know that gardening and beekeeping are not going to make the difference on their own, but if they help me change a kid’s life for the better, then I’ll do it.” These three individuals share one main element in common. All of them have a will to serve that is greater than their will to fulfill their own wants and desires. For this, I commend them.
Part IV: Saint Louis Community Development Organizations
As stated in my thesis statement, the purpose of this paper is not just to report on the work I have done with LOVEtheLOU or just to write about the three remarkable individuals who run the organization. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how ordinary people with extraordinarily big hearts are able to apply their love of community to the poor and underprivileged neighborhoods around Saint Louis. I am seeking to highlight both who these individuals are and the incredible work that they do, free of ulterior motives such as fame or fortune. That being said, part IV of this paper will focus on several examples of people in Saint Louis who, like LOVEtheLOU, have given their lives in an attempt to do something great for others.
The first person on this list is a man by the name of Jason Wilson. Wilson is the founder of Chronicle Coffee and Northwest Coffee Roasting Co. His coffee career begins in a rather unlikely place. While on a trip to China, he was standing in a coffee shop with his friends talking about policy and global economics when he had a revelation. He thought, “We need to have this same type of platform in communities like the north side of St. Louis that are disenfranchised and lack a few basic resources.” (Klamm, FEAST) Years later, Wilson is able to look back on the success he has had in both his own life and those of others. He tells FEAST magazine in an interview conducted in 2013 that the coffee shop has been received well by the community. “We have a very diverse group of folks coming here from different parts of St. Louis and the county”, he says. For some, venturing into north Saint Louis is synonymous with suicide. The crime, drugs, gangs, and violence that infect north Saint Louis daily are widely known and superbly quarantined by the large majority of Saint Louisans. Yet Wilson says that his customers like the fact that his shop is in north Saint Louis. People have respect for someone who is willing to take a chance in a place like north Saint Louis. Wilson has done more than just sell coffee. He has set up evening events for youth and installed chessboards for customers and members of the community to use for free. When I began my research on Wilson and Chronicle Coffee, I was under the impression that his café was one that could easily be in the Central West End (a high class district of Saint Louis). Yet Chronicle is set up north of the “Delmar Divide”, a historically racial divide in Saint Louis. He says that one of the hardest parts in the beginning was getting people to overcome their own engrained stigmas about anything north of Delmar Blvd being dangerous or not profitable. Wilson is touching on an incredibly important issue here. The issue of racism and discrimination is just as alive today as it was 10, 20, even 30 years ago and there is hard evidence to prove it. Take the “Delmar Divide” for example. The BBC recently made a short documentary on the inconsistencies that prevail on either side of Delmar Blvd. In the documentary, it states that just north of Delmar Blvd. the median home value is $73,000 and the median household income is $18,000. Across the street, the median home value is $335,000 and the median household income is $50,000. These are staggering numbers. I find it very hard to believe that this kind of disparity can exist in a society that is fully integrated, desegregated and inclusive. When one side has a bachelor’s degree rate of 10% and the other has a 70% rate, there is obviously going to be a large disparity in many different areas of daily life. The BBC goes on to report that the area south of Delmar is 73% white and the area north of Delmar is 98% black! As stunning as these figures are, their effect varies from person to person. Some people hear these numbers and immediately shy away from this area of Saint Louis. They feel threatened by the overwhelming number of poor black people and prefer to stay on the south side where they can enjoy the comforts of their million dollar mansions. Others see these numbers and see the deeper problem. I tend to fall into the latter category, along with my colleagues at LOVEtheLOU and Jason Wilson. We understand that that income and home value are just two issues that scratch the surface of an iceberg that penetrates deep into our history as a city and society as a whole. There are serious employment and achievement gaps that exist in north Saint Louis in comparison to many other municipalities in the greater Saint Louis area. It is for these reasons that Wilson decided to sow his seeds in the infertile ground that is north Saint Louis. Yet the result of his gamble shows itself in the success he has seen in the past few years. His business has attracted hundreds of community members and acted as platform for community events like movies for kids and chess tournaments. Wilson, like Lucas Rouggly, is precisely the kind of catalyst that north Saint Louis’ economy of small businesses needs. What’s more, he is not alone. In fact, he is far from alone.
In 1983, Edith Cunnane became the founder of St. Patrick’s Center, an organization designed to give aid to extremely poor individuals who were either homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless. Like Wilson, her objectives were very simple from the start. She noticed a specific need for more housing for the homeless and she knew that the city needed somebody to step up and be the agent of change. It wasn’t until one day in winter when she saw a group of homeless people standing outside in the snow that she finally decided to found St. Patrick’s Center in the old St. Patrick’s school in downtown Saint Louis. In a period of 32 years, this organization has done wonders for the people of Saint Louis, boasting over 150,000 cases of individuals who have been helped by the center. These people were all given a second chance, thanks to the tenacity and generosity of Cunnane. But the center doesn’t stop at just housing the homeless. It clothes them, feeds them, and provides clinics for job training, mental health aid and even provides housing programs. Cunnane knew that just giving away food and clothing wouldn’t be enough to really make a difference so she added these other programs to ensure that these vulnerable people had a way to get back on their feet for good. Most recently, St. Patrick’s center built a large housing project called Rosati House, a place that provides housing for up to 26 chronically homeless men and women. On top of that, they expanded their space downtown, moving their entire operation to the Partnership Center. Recent expansion has added space for a trades training center, where clients can go for assistance in the learning of trades that will provide them with an opportunity to find employment easier. Their “business incubator” center provides additional job training where clients can go to learn basic business skills. Charlene Washington, a former homeless woman who was forced by economic hardship and drug addiction to sell her body for money, attends these job training courses and says that she, “felt like I didn’t deserve it but they gave me a second chance and I want to thank them.” The success of these programs is apparent in the differences they make in real people who, at one point, were completely helpless. All of these incredible attributes that St. Patrick’s center has accumulated over its long history as an organization in Saint Louis were made possible entirely by hard work and dedication by its founders and staff. I see many similarities between LOVEtheLOU and St. Patrick’s center in this regard. St. Patrick’s center is a great example of an organization that began with an idea and continued to grow until it became a giant in the business of helping others succeed, no matter the cost, and is a success story that I can see LOVEtheLOU mimicking 20 years down the road.
The third and final organization that I spent time researching for this paper is called Old North Saint Louis Restoration Group. Old North, in comparison to LOVEtheLOU, Chronicle Coffee House, and St. Patrick’s Center, is similar yet unique in many ways. It finds its way into this paper because it began as a grass roots organization in 1981, run by individuals who saw a need in a specific area and worked with the resources they had to achieve something greater than themselves. They are unique in that their founders were already residents of north Saint Louis when they formed the group. Lucas Rouggly and Jake Barnett may live in north Saint Louis, but they are not originally from there. This only gave Old North an advantage as they were fighting to restore their home, which, in a sense, was part of their very identities. Their goal in forming the group is clear in its title. They sought to restore their once flourishing neighborhood and to protect its vulnerable, yet highly historic buildings from the bulldozer. Their website gives an overview of who they are stating that they seek to “revitalize the physical and social dimensions of the community in a manner that respects its historic, cultural, and urban character.” The site goes on to say that they have evolved from an unassuming group of volunteers to an “award-winning, effective community development corporation with a professional staff and a broad range of community-building activities.” This commitment has shown itself through a wide variety of services the group has provided over the years. They have purchased dozens of historic buildings, restoring them to their original beauty and then placing them on the market for sale to buyers with a commitment to their preservation. They have led teams of volunteers in beautification efforts in vacant lot cleaning, park development, and establishing community gardens. In all, they have nearly 100,000 square feet of green space that they maintain through these programs. The group also sponsors events, such as potluck suppers, the annual House Tour in the spring, outdoor movie nights in the summer and a street festival in the fall. These events help the group grow in size and popularity among the people of Saint Louis but they also foster a warm environment for the members of the Old North community. In the spring of 2014, I was lucky enough to enroll in a class at SLU called “The Urban Crisis” where we studied north Saint Louis and were able to go on a tour with Old North. On this tour, we learned about Pruitt-Igoe (one of the most famous public housing failures in U.S. history), the farming initiatives on the vacant lots, and much more about the hundreds of historic buildings in Old North. I was able to see firsthand both the incredible progress that Old North has made and the depressing reality of the problems that still curse such a historic place. While the magnitude of need is still great, the revitalization efforts are not far from miraculous. Old North, like the other organizations already mentioned, is an example of the type of successful organization that I believe LOVEtheLOU will find itself embodying in its near future.
Part V: LOVE in the Heart of the Storm
LOVEtheLOU has found itself in the middle of a hailstorm of need, which is precisely where it wants and needs to be. As a nonprofit designed to help people struggling with gang violence, drug abuse, unemployment, and lack of direction they have succeeded in laying their foundation in a phenomenal location. North Saint Louis has been a battleground for racial tensions, stemming from the recent shooting deaths of Michael Brown, VonDerrit Myers Jr. and decades of discrimination and cultural segregation. Many of the onlookers who saw the recent violence in Ferguson saw only the eruption hatred and violence of a community whose pot boiled over. But what they may not realize is that within these areas there is hope. They may not see that there is a legion of volunteers who work tirelessly to protect and promote this community as a place a business and growth. Lucas Rouggly, Jake Barnett, Korri Sears, Jason Wilson, Dorothy Cunnane and those at Old North are just several of the hundreds of people who have taken the leap of faith into the black hole, without knowing whether or not they will make it out alive. In my service with LOVEtheLOU over the past several months, I have painted apartments, helped in the gardens, helped organize volunteers at the N. Kingshighway building, and helped design the LOVEtheLOU website. These are small services that I am proud of but I do not consider them earth-shattering difference making experiences. Every Saturday after working at LOVEtheLOU, I was able to go home to my comfortable apartment and relax with my college friends. For Lucas and Jake, who live in the neighborhood, there is nowhere to run to. Lucas and Jake are well aware that everyday could be their last. There are no shortages of murderous gangs in north Saint Louis and they are reminded of this reality every morning when they step off their front porches. Across the street from Lucas’ house, there is a tree decorated with bottles of alcohol, old shoes, T-shirts, coins, and bullets. This is the memorial for the boy who was shot and killed on Lucas’ block just months ago. If this isn’t a good enough warning to run for the hills, I don’t know what is. For me, this memorial is a representation of the old man siting on a slab of granite below the Medicine Bow Peak, warning me that fate seeks the risk takers. It is a physical reminder of a life stolen too soon and a boy who never got to live to see the world. For Lucas, this is a challenge. It is a challenge for him as a leader to fight for this to never happen again. It is a reminder that life and love are worth fighting for. For Lucas, this is the heart of the storm.
“About Us – St. Patrick Center.” St Patrick Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
“About ONSL Restoration Group.” Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.