Transforming a neighborhood one BLOC at a time

January 26, 2017 | GET MORE : Social Responsibility

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Neighbors Dwight Young and Larry Groves work together to create jobs and give second chances

When Dwight Young moved to one of the most crime-ridden corners of Cincinnati's East Price Hill to start an after-school program, he didn't exactly receive a welcome party.

"I told him to get the [bleep] out," said neighbor Larry Groves, who feared it'd only attract loitering and drugs to a block already infested with both.

Nearly two decades later, Young and Groves are practically family and work together serving that very neighborhood through Young and his wife Stephanie's faith-based, workforce development nonprofit, BLOC (Believing and Living One Christ) Ministries.

Not long after their initial encounter, Groves had gotten in trouble and spent three years in prison. When he got out, he needed a job. Young offered a spot in helping BLOC open a soup kitchen. Six months later, Groves was running the kitchen. Within a few years, he'd helped the organization open three others.

"I'd always really loved to cook, and done it well," said Groves. (I have on good authority that he makes the best fried chicken in the state of Ohio.)

Groves and others first worked to engrain themselves and build trust in a community that, like Groves at first, was skeptical. But today, it serves 3,000 families a month. Young applied the same philosophy — that they couldn't be so-called "helicopter missionaries" — across all of BLOC's programs.

"Stephanie and I live here, and our staff lives here. We serve people not as clients, but as neighbors," said Young. This mindset has helped BLOC place hundreds of neighbors — many of them former prostitutes or drug dealers — in permanent jobs through training focused on marketable skills through the organization's coffee house and woodworking / screen-printing shops.

Now, with a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Bank Foundation, BLOC will be able to get more people in the door. Their model is effective in part because they pay $11 an hour during their skills-training programs. The U.S. Bank funding will pay for 10 people to go through this intensive training.

BLOC's workforce development efforts hit on a core pillar of U.S. Bank's Community Possible giving platform, which the bank introduced in early 2016. The platform focuses its giving on nonprofits which make community possible at Work, Home and Play.

"Work, Home and Play are the building blocks that made our country great: a stable job, a home to call your own and a community connected through culture, recreation and play," said Mike Prescott, market president for U.S. Bank in Cincinnati, who presented the grant alongside community development manager Alicia Townsend. In 2016, the U.S. Bank Foundation donated more than $26 million in grants to nonprofits.

Work, in particular, is a difference-maker for those re-entering from incarceration who don't necessarily know what they're good at, said Groves.

"When I got out, having a job meant everything to me. It gave me a sense of well-being; it gave me something to do; it gave me a purpose in life," said Groves. "[At the soup kitchens] we've helped quite a few people who have been incarcerated, who come out needing someone they can trust and someone who believes in them."

Groves is one of many BLOC success stories, and others are taking notice. On Jan. 3, BLOC's coffee shop, which has already served as a catalyst for surrounding retail development in East Price Hill, opened a second location at City Hall. In the coming years, however, Young still remains focused on continuing to serve the neighborhood where it all began — connecting more neighbors with jobs and homes.

"We're not a social service," added Young. "We're a group that tries to help people help themselves. If you're willing to do that, we'll bend over backwards for you."

Written by Pat Swanson of U.S. Bank.