Jim Carney

Evern Marie Clark stood in front of her apartment at Cascade Village in Akron and broke into a wide smile.

“This is my castle,” Clark, 61, said of her town home, where she has lived for the past six years. “I love it!”

Clark was the first resident of Cascade Village, a collection of 242 mixed-income housing units located on the site of the former Elizabeth Park housing project along East North Street and underneath the All-America Bridge. Her life illustrates how the complex has evolved since receipt of a large foundation grant.

In the spring of 2011, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded Cascade Village and its managing organization a $1.7 million grant (over four years) to help the new neighborhood build relationships and skills among residents.

Clark, who had lived at the 1940-built Elizabeth Park, is a computer teacher at Cascade Village and helps residents improve computer skills. She receives a $200 monthly stipend, paid from the grant, for her work.

Knight foundation money helps pay the salaries of several staff members who work at the development, said Jessica Russell, director of community life.

“Our whole initiative is to involve residents and get them being engaged in the community,” Russell said.

Grant money has been used to start a day care and an after-school program at the picturesque housing complex built on both sides of the Little Cuyahoga River.

Traci Vaughn-Person, 45, wears two hats at Cascade Village. One is as a three-year resident and the other is as the neighborhood’s full-time community organizer, a position funded by the Knight grant.

“I am the liaison person between residents and management,” said Vaughn-Person, who has worked as a management coach at call centers.

Her work takes her to resident celebrations, like birthdays or completion of schooling, and even hospital visits.

If a resident complains about noise coming from another resident’s home, she talks to the parties about options to resolve the problem.

“I love it,” she said of her work as a community organizer.

LaVelle Sharpe, 29, the education specialist at Cascade Village, works with the Akron Area Y-run day care and before- and after-school programs located at Cascade. Knight money funds his position along with scholarships for the programs.

He said he works directly with children in the neighborhood and hopes to serve as a mentor to them by letting them know he cares.

“I think I can contribute a lot to the community,” Sharpe said.

Vern Richberg, 50, a former stockbroker and business owner, is the full-time economic opportunity coach at Cascade Village.

In that job, also funded through the Knight grant, he teaches economic literacy and credit counseling and works with residents to encourage them to save money for school tuition, home ownership or other goals through Individual Development Accounts. Grant money, up to $1,000, is available on a dollar-for-dollar match to encourage saving among residents, he said.

“It is my hope, and the hope of the people I work with, that we can change the mindset — the poverty mindset,” he said.

Richberg said his goal is to help people move from poverty to self-sufficiency. He leads a monthly Micro-Enterprise Club meeting and has worked with residents to develop talents and hobbies into side businesses.

“We look at things they physically love to do to convert them into money-making activities,” he said.

University of Akron ceramics professor Donna Webb has been spending considerable time at Cascade Village since last spring, working with residents on various art projects during a yearlong sabbatical. In the fall, she taught a photo class to young residents.

“We are learning what perspective means and how to angle the camera so you get what you want in the picture,” said resident Sophia Altwies, 12, a student in Webb’s class.

The Knight grant paid for supplies and other expenses related to Webb’s class. Her goal during her sabbatical has been to find out what kind of public art the residents of Cascade Village want to see erected.

“I am looking in three areas,” she said. “One is the landscape, the [second] is history and the third is the people themselves.”

She said she finds the housing complex to be beautiful because of its location along the river.

Her hope is that by being in the community for so long, she can “get into the hearts and minds of the people here and get them thinking about art.”

Webb said she has learned much from the residents.

“I have learned the stories of individual residents, young and old,” she said. “We have a lot in common.”

Jennifer Thomas, the Knight Foundation’s program director for Akron, said the point of the grant is not just about the sparkling new housing complex.

“It is about how people engage and network within that space. … Knight wanted to work with the community to build a trust among the residents.”

Mark Chupp, Mark Joseph and Robert L. Fischer, from Case Western Reserve University, have been surveying residents along with two researchers to collect data since the grant was made.

Fischer, from the university’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, said the model at Cascade Village “is a really important example of the kind of work that is going on around the nation with mixed income.”

“Mixed income” refers to having residents living side by side of different income levels. At Cascade, one apartment resident might have federally subsidized rent while his or her neighbor might pay market-level rent.

“It really is ground-breaking in a number of ways,” Fischer said of Cascade Village. “Its objectives are pretty lofty. It is partly about helping families and children achieve their goals and about making a former public housing setting a vital community that contributes to the life of Akron.”

Matt McClung, Cascade Village property manager, said having different incomes living together is a great program.

“You don’t know if your next-door neighbor is paying full rent or is being subsidized,” he said.

Evern Clark said living in the old Elizabeth Park was “treacherous. … It was rough. They would stop you in the middle of the street” and ask, “Do you want to buy drugs?”

Akron police Lt. Rick Edwards said crime has decreased significantly since Elizabeth Park was torn down and Cascade Village was built.

At Cascade Village, Clark said, things are different, and she feels safe all the time.

“I love it,” she said. “I take pride in where I live.”

Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at jcarney@thebeaconjournal.com.