Inside I Promise Village, the LeBron James program tackling student homelessness

Reporting, writing and photos by Abbey Marshall

LeBron James’ basketball career started in a place similar to this: huddled around a hoop on a tucked-away Akron street, with friends wiping their brows as beads of sweat, illuminated by a nearby porch light, dribbled down their faces.

London Riley, 10, is determined to score on her much older rivals; she darts across the rain-slicked court, nimbly dodging the defense before sinking a basket through the hoop. Riley is one of 20 Akron students living in the LeBron James Family Foundation’s new transitional housing complex who didn’t always have a safe place to play outside, or even live.

But on this late-October evening, she can just focus on the game.

James, a four-time NBA champion, knows these kids’ situations all too well: As a child, James was among the 10% of Akron students each year without permanent or stable housing. His foundation is aiming to change that with Akron’s new I Promise Village, a program providing individual living units for families who need immediate shelter and support.

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Hurdles of homelessness

With an estimated net worth of about $450 million, James has long been a philanthropist for the Akron community. An outspoken activist and staunch proponent for social justice nationwide, he recently used his stardom to speak out against police brutality as the Black Lives Matter movement swept across the country this summer. James also helped launch a voting rights organization to combat systemic voter suppression.

“It’s been a blessing all the way around,” said Toynika Lee, a 42-year-old whose two kids live with her at the I Promise Village. A single mother, Lee felt she had few options when it came to finding housing. Though she has a stable job, she lacked the resources to overcome hurdles of homeownership, such as large down payments or securing loans.

Her family was relieved when they moved into I Promise Village, which opened in July. The program is part of the wraparound family services for students attending the I Promise School. Lee’s daughter, 10-year-old Ayonna, is one of the 1,500 Akron children in the I Promise network.

The program, launched in 2014, worked within Akron public schools before opening its own campus in July 2018. The I Promise School is expected to instruct 720 third- through eight- grade students by 2022. It is still part of the Akron public school district, but the foundation supplies additional funding for resources and wraparound services, such as the new housing initiative. About 60% of the students at the school are Black.

From approximately 500 third-graders who are identified within the bottom 25% of test scores, 120 win the annual lottery. It’s a godsend: a guaranteed spot at the school and the promise that staff will be behind you for any extenuating life circumstances, now including housing.

For many, homelessness can devastate their education. In 2014, a study from America’s Promise Alliance and its Center for Promise at Tufts University found that homeless youth are 87% more likely to drop out than their nonhomeless peers.

Supporting both students and parents

In Akron, 10% of all students in the public school system are without a home at some point during any given school year — usually around 2,100 of the 21,000 children enrolled, said Akron Public School’s homeless liaison, Shannah Carino. Though Carino implements federal law that removes barriers such as transportation and improper documentation, the school district does not and cannot deal with housing placements beyond shelter and resource recommendations.

The LeBron James Family Foundation raised the question: If students had access to stable housing and additional resources, would their education benefit and help break the poverty cycle?

The answer, Lee said, is absolutely.

“I’ve noticed a difference with my daughter working with her math and paying attention,” said Lee, citing tutoring sessions her daughter receives each week at the village. “What the foundation does is provide the extra help — and those extra resources go far — that we can’t get on our own.”

Purchased, remodeled and donated by Graduate Hotels, it contains 16 units, eight of which are in use by families with students from the I Promise network with two live-in staff members. The complex offers tutoring, music and art lessons, a produce garden, yoga and cooking classes with a professional chef.

“My son is taking piano lessons,” Lee said. “That’s something we wouldn’t have done outside the village. Every week they’re doing all these activities for the kids. … They’ve always been happy kids, but there’s a few families here so they can build relationships and friendships. We’re in a comfortable environment where the kids can flourish.”

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Ending the cycle

While there is no limit to the length of a family’s stay, each family develops a plan to ultimately attain stable housing. With a more permanent solution in mind, the foundation is teaming up with the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corp. to break ground this fall for a 50-unit complex just minutes from the school.

“We help with financial literacy, financial wellness and awareness,” said Victoria McGee, the director of the I Promise School’s Family Resource Center. “We want to change their trajectory and give them education resources and tools so it doesn’t become a vicious cycle.”

The foundation did not say how much it spends on programs and services offered through the I Promise School and Village. Overall, in 2018, the foundation brought in about $7 million in revenue and had expenses of almost $6.5 million, according to its most recent tax returns filed with the IRS.

“The way we hope to affect change and change systems is to provide a blueprint for how to rally a community around a cause,” said Stephanie Rosa, the foundation spokesperson.

The foundation hosted its first “I Promise Huddle” in October, which brought together advocacy groups, government officials, business leaders, philanthropists and educators to discuss I Promise School’s wraparound service model in Akron. Rosa said that just two weeks after the huddle, they’ve already received reports of people implementing parts of their model into their organizations.

“One of the things that I hope people who are watching us takeaway is it really does take a village,” said McGee, the resource center director. “When you start removing barriers and systemic things that impact brown and Black people, you even the playing field and make differences in lives.”

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. First published in USA Today, this article is part of a series called ‘On the Ground‘ with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Abbey at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.