MICHIGAN CITY – By turning one abandoned structure into a community resource center, you can start to create a new and positive attitude for the entire west side.
At least that is one man's vision.
"This building has been unattended for a long time," Alonzo Rupert said last week while standing outside the vacant building at 429 Willard Avenue. "A lot of this community has been unattended for a long time ... We need to start to create a better environment."
The building, formerly All Nations Church of God and Pop's & Geegee's Corner Store, has been vacant for at least five or six years. It was donated by Nancy Perry to the House of Hope, and the plan is to turn it into a neighborhood resource center for youth and adults.
The building once served as a halfway house for released offenders, to help them with the transition back to the community, Rupert said. Now he hopes to spark a transition for the community, with the help of some of those offenders.
"The House of Hope shares this vision of providing an outlet to a better life, and to reduce crime by providing a seamless transition with supervision, reintegration programs and aftercare for ex-offenders, and anyone else in the community who needs help."
Rupert, an ex-offender himself, said something like this has been needed for a long time.
"One night I was talking to my grandson and he said he had nothing to do. So we drove around for about two hours and I realized there was absolutely nothing for kids to do," he said.
It's been that way for a while.
"When I was young, my grandfather told me to go into the service, get an education, then retire in 20 years with a pension and insurance ... He told me to look outside and 'tell me what you see.' I said 'I see cars and houses and trees'; and he said, 'No! What do you see out there? Nothing. Nothing but trouble. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing'."
And not much has changed, Rupert said, looking around at an area of blight and vacant buildings.
"This is poverty," he said. "Kids today are in the same place I was – no education, no jobs, just poverty and incarceration. It has the community plugged.
"I grew up on the north side and I would go out on the street and see gambling and drugs. I thought it was a cool, I didn't know what a fool I was."
He said having gone through the street punk lifestyle and spending time incarcerated, he is in a unique position to help today's youth.
"They need somebody who's lived through it, whose been on these streets. If you haven't been through it, you can't give these kids anything. They want somebody who has been there and lived the life that I have."
It took such a scenario to straighten out his own life.
"I was at an NA meeting, and I heard a guy say he didn't go to jail every time he got drunk or high, but every time he went to jail, it was because he got drunk or high. He said as long as you don't take that first one, you'll be OK.
"That really helped me when I thought about it. But two weeks later that guy died of an overdose ... I have been clean ever since."
And he now realizes how right his grandfather was.
"I had to be in by dark and didn't understand why. I thought my grandpa was just old. What I forgot was that my grampa had been my age, but I hadn't been his age.
"Later, he saw me in the grip of it and said he was sorry. But I didn't hear him. It was the decisions and the choices I made, I didn't have to live that way. ... but I know I have something to offer the community and the kids. And this building will really help."
He said seven or eight programs will be run at the future center, and it starts with education.
"An educational program to get GEDs. I tell my grandson you only get out of something what you put in, and education is truly important to a better lifestyle."
The second key, he said, will be spiritual programs.
"The spiritual program, working in conjunction with local churches and the 12 Steps program, will be a base. The spirituality part is a key to staying clean and sober and becoming a better person. Helps you not to relapse into your old ways. It goes hand in hand with education."
There will also be programs such as cooking and nutritional education; gardening, safety, small engine repair, job training, financial training – "all designed to help you become independent," Rupert said.
House of Hope staff have written a grant proposal and plan to write more after the first of the year. They hope grants will provide funding to rehab the building.
Rupert is planning a presentation (Jan. 18 at the Michigan City Public Library) for county and local groups "to show what we want to do and get volunteers, get church involvement. The timeline is at least a year to open, but we need to get the community involved now," Rupert said.
"The community must come together to stop this pipeline into prison and addiction. We can elevate the community, but we need resources. We need people to come in and get involved..."
Some of that involvement could come from the Indiana State Prison.
"ISP has offered to do their therapeutic program here, for kids and adults. It's a way to get to them without sending them to prison. The superintendent [Ron Neal] is really big on this project. We hope to maximize that partnership ... They have some innovative solutions – satellite educational programs, offenders helping with mentorship to youth."
ISP also has a volunteer program he hopes to tap.
"Offenders can help with renovation of the building. I made a presentation to inmates and they could relate to what we are doing. They showed a lot of interest. One offender said he wanted to donate money, and after the presentation, he said he wanted to donate more. Some of the programs are already offered in there, but they can help out here to."
House of Hope's Youth Empowerment program also started a summer baseball/sports program, and Rupert said the first year went well.
"It helped us set objectives to build on. The success is not going to be how many games were played, or how fast the kids run or how high they can jump. The real success is if those kids stay out of trouble, stay out of prison."