When LeBron James tells his life story, he doesn’t always mention fourth grade in Akron, Ohio. During that time, he and his mother, Gloria, bounced between numerous apartments because of financial hardships. The uncertainty of where he would be sleeping during any particular night, and the sometimes significant distance to school, made it challenging for him to make it to class. During a year when LeBron and Gloria moved a half-dozen times, he missed 83 days of school.
Now, that part of his story may have an even more happy ending. The four-time NBA MVP announced plans to open a facility in his hometown specifically to help students facing a similar situation not just survive, but prosper.
Called the I Promise Village, this planned transitional housing facility, an outgrowth of James’s foundation and charity work, shows the Lakers star broadening the focus of his philanthropy. He’s already opened a school, and observing the struggles of students going through the same issues he did inspired him, says Michele Campbell, executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF).
“We found that students with more extreme behavior tended to lack stable housing,” Campbell says. “We quickly realized that if we weren’t able to address the issue of safe and stable housing for a family, we wouldn’t be able to deal with the real issues inhibiting a student’s learning.”
A holistic vision for healing a community
This extension of LeBron’s I Promise School, which will provide free transitional housing at a converted apartment building a few blocks from the school, offers a comprehensive model for community investment and housing support. It’s also a realization that the core of the Foundation’s mission—helping a child graduate and stay in school—can only be met if housing is part of the overall effort.
“Initially, our work was focused on helping these kids earn an education,” said James in a statement. “But we’ve found that it is impossible to help them learn if they are struggling to survive—if they are hungry, if they have no heat in the freezing winter, if they live in fear for their safety.”
When the I Promise Village opens its doors—Campbell says the goal is July 2020—it’ll represent a vision that James and the foundation have about helping cities and communities prosper: education, housing, and even transportation are all intertwined issues that can’t be addressed alone.
“The foundation is a tremendous pioneer in connecting the dots between home life and school life, which is no easy feat,” says Ruben Navarro, a vice president at Graduate Hotels, a Chicago-based company helping to build out I Promise Village. “It’ll serve as an archetype for other cities to replicate. They’re not just providing housing; they’re supporting people through tough times. It’s the right way to engage with the community.”
Expanding a school’s vision
The foundation’s plans for housing may seem like a big departure, until taking into account the existing vision of the I Promise School. Opening in 2018 to a class of 240 third and fourth graders, the public school facility offers an incredible breadth and depth of services, classes, and support for those in need. Akron Public Schools identified in-need students and sends them to I Promise based on a lottery.
The school bills itself as being STEM-focused and infused with LeBron’s “We Are Family” philosophy, and pays special attention to students experiencing trauma. That translates to a longer school year that stretches from July through May, longer school days that run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., an “Empower Hour” dedicated to extracurricular activities, and a wide variety of counseling, support services, and mentorship programs that support the entire family, not just the student.
Campbell said the idea to expand into housing simple came from listening to the families, as well as learning from the experiences of LeBron and Gloria, who gave them feedback on what she thought would and wouldn’t be useful to families needing support, especially those experiencing homelessness, job loss, or domestic abuse.
“If you would have asked me a few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have said we’d open a school or a village,” Campbell says. “I’m actually not sure we have a strategic plan anymore. We just listen to our families, and try to fill the gap.”
Last year, Graduate Hotels CEO Ben Weprin had the opportunity to meet James and was impressed with the school. He inquired about ways he could help. Graduate Hotels builds lodging near campuses across the country in what Navarro calls “hyper-localized hospitality.” The ability to collaborate with the LJFF and be a part of having a direct impact on the community sounded like a good way to get involved.
The plans for I Promise Village
The site of the future I Promise village, a 22-unit apartment building, is roughly five blocks from the school, and close to downtown Akron near an area called Highland Square. The ability to walk or bike to school (James is an avid cyclist) will make it that much easier to get to and from school and extracurricular activities.
Over the next seven months, the facility will be renovated and turned into a multipurpose transitional housing site. Following the example of the school, the Village will feature artwork focused on positivity and Akron history, including student work.
The building will also be designed out to encourage interaction, both within the family and community. Individual units will be flexible, to accommodate different sizes and types of family. The ground floor will contain a family dining area, as well as a common area, with one whole unit converted into an intake center to help new arrivals make the transition and receive support services. Outside, a blacktop lot will be redesigned with landscaping and sports facilities.
The entire facility will be free of charge to families that the foundation’s family resource center identifies as in need.
“I feel they’re trusting us to deliver,” she says. “They trust us, so we’re going to figure out an answer. To make real change, we need to start listening and thinking bigger.”
Building a village
By announcing the Village as a component of the LJFF’s mission, the organization is embracing a more holistic vision of community building and betting transitional housing support can make a difference. The Urban Institute agrees that housing support is vital to success, but cautions that transitional may not always be the best route.
“Transitional housing could help some families in the I Promise Community, but other solutions may do more for a lower cost, such as permanently affordable housing,” wrote Patrick Spauster, a researcher with the think tank.
It seems likely that the LJFF won’t stop with this single housing development. The partnership with Graduate Hotels reflects a key aspect of the group’s philosophy, finding allies and other advocates. So far, 47 partners have partnered with the LJFF, which Campbell says makes this community project a lot more than just the work of a single basketball player.
“The only way real change is going to happen in our community is if you think beyond yourself and get others involved,” she says. “LeBron James could be involved in a plane crash tonight and not be here tomorrow and this work will still go on.”