Neighbors from the surrounding Grant Beach neighborhood begin congregating inside the warm and festively decorated annex of the Fairbanks for a weekly community dinner. What was once an elementary school, closed in 2007, continues to be restored in phases to a neighborhood hub. Its mission is to connect families with needed services through the efforts of the Drew Lewis Foundation and its many partners.
“We always come around to share food first—so it always begins with a dinner,” Blansit says.
That’s Amy Blansit, founder of the Drew Lewis Foundation. These weekly community dinners are just one of many programs hosted in combination with organizations like Missouri State University, the Center for Dispute Resolutions, Life 360 and others. All are working to connect families with services to offers access to food, literacy and housing assistance.
“Basically being an extension for gaining social capital. So a lot of individuals in this neighborhood become extremely isolated—there’s not a lot of destination here. So when we look at lack of food access and a number of other things, part of what we provide is just that networking,” shares Blansit.
Blansit says the Fairbanks remains under reconstruction so new programs are being implemented in phases. The mission is to help give people a “hand up” not a “hand out.” Families receiving goods and services volunteer as a way to not only give back, but to become invested in their community.
Kathy Lutz, a community member and also active in the Grant Beach Neighborhood Association (GBNA), participates in the Circle’s Program each Thursdays that is focused on building relationships and learning about conflict resolution. Lutz shares Blansit’s enthusiasm of bringing this old elementary school building back to life. She used to live across the street from the building and appreciates the changes.
“For one thing…just the energy that I feel when I come here now. I mean, I’ve been in the parking lot before in the parking lot shooing off kiddos that were trying to break in. I really don’t know how to describe it….it felt lonely. And now it’s so full of energy again,” Lutz explains.
Lutz says she appreciates the growing number of programs offered at the Fairbanks and says the mission meshes well with GBNA’s efforts to strengthen the community.
Lutz and her husband, who have health concerns, share a home with their adult son who is autistic. Resources can be limited at times, she says, and appreciates the neighborhood food drops provided by Ozarks Food Harvest and Convoy of Hope. These opportunities along with the Springfield Community Gardens at the Fairbanks allow area residents access to fresh foods.
“Believe me I recently went through cancer treatment and those fresh fruits and vegetables were wonderful. As opposed to having to eat all canned stuff. And as my husband will tell you, there were days when all I wanted was a cold piece of fruit,” shares Lutz.
Blansit is excited for the Fairbanks’ next phase, incorporating use of the new commercial kitchen, scheduled to begin early next year.
“We’re going to work through the Springfield Community Gardens, which have a garden on-site, and with our commercial kitchen we’ll begin taking foods from literally the grounds here into the kitchen and then turning into foods that we provide into the neighborhood,” explains Blansit.
As progress at the Fairbanks continues, Blansit explains, creating a corner market of sorts that offers basic needs within walking distance will be important.
Food sources are limited in this and other northwest Springfield neighborhoods, given economic and social challenges. Springfield City Manager Greg Burris says Zone 1 has the city’s oldest infrastructure, which is one reason why earlier this year the city began looking at ways to address the issues that have arisen here. City statistics complied as a part of the Zone Blitz project look at many factors and break down findings into “heat maps.” Burris explains why the northwest quadrant of town is often referred to as a “food desert.”
“Then you also look at income and you overlay income maps on that. What you find is that from Center City up through the northwest part of our community is a section where there is no ready access to fresh foods, but also it’s a low income area. So those two things combined create what we call a food desert,” explains Burris.
Burris says the city is looking at ways to improve the food desert, which could include opening more grocery stores within the area and installing more community gardens. He says the Fairbanks is a unique project that was created apart from the city’s mission but it incorporates well because it calls upon citizens to address problems in “their own backyard.”
“People capitalize on probably the biggest resource that the northwest part of town has and that’s community pride,” says Burris.
Burris say the city is observing what successful initiatives may emerge from the Fairbanks that can be replicated in other neighborhoods.
“We don’t do anything new and that’s why it’s working. We’re simply bringing together people who have passion…and if that’s where you donate your time it’s something you almost give until it hurts—and that’s when you know you’re in the right place,” says Blansit.
Amy Blansit says anyone can volunteer and get involved with programs at the Fairbanks. She invites those interested to come and serve the families and be an ally and create a relationship with the family by finding out what their need is. She explains that this happens not through monetary assistance, but by connecting the resource gaps.