Stephanie "Leo" Leonardi had plenty of faith and not a clue about constriction when she launched Summit Lake Build Corps.

That was March 2017, three years after she’d survived a coma-inducing illness and quit her job teaching art at Akron Public Schools' Bettes Elementary and Garfield High School. After the "life-upending" near-death experience, she traded her home in North Hill for a mission-apartment run by South Street Ministries near Summit Lake.

Freed from the confines of classrooms, she searched her soul for a better way to reach her students. She would live among them, with the problems that follow them home after school. She would help them love their neighborhood, which private developers have neglected for generations.

Today, she can have an army of youth ready to take on a community project with the drop of a Facebook post. Twelve young people between the ages of 12 and 23 currently serve in Summit Lake Build Corps (SLBC). The unconventional youth empowerment program is neither a company nor a charity. It’s a mission, plain and simple. Next year, all its young builders will be independent contractors, learning to manage bank accounts and file tax forms to collect $10 an hour for the labor they love.

The financial education and camaraderie, like the lumber and the handy skills, are all part of a broader effort to build stronger community.

Diverse students in the program attend the best schools, like the Early College or the STEM high schools in Akron, or charter schools where kids go when they fall behind. “I’m learning basically everything I want to do in a career,” said Trevor Campbell, 16, a Towpath Trail High School student who grew up in South Akron.

Campbell aspires to be his own construction boss someday. He enjoys the reward of hard work. With every board he nails, he’s “giving back to a community that gave me so much.”

“For people from the outside, it’s just a program. For people inside, it’s community,” Leonardi said, motioning teenagers who huddled around a propane heater in a chilly garage one recent Sunday afternoon. “For these guys, it’s where they come from.”

Community invested

Along with the steepest population decline and highest housing vacancy rate, the Summit Lake neighborhood has the lowest median age in Akron outside of the area around the University of Akron.

About one in four homes are empty. Nowhere does the city own more vacant lots where deteriorating homes were bulldozed near the water’s edge. Here, Leonardi and co-mentor Jeff Horner, a handyman also from South Street Ministries, have activated a youthful hope and energy.

“We’re getting there. We’re so close,” said Catera Davis, 18, another Towpath Trail student who longs for the day SLBC is a self-sustaining company with enough clients and work to revitalize the community. “I want to see us be there.”

“You want it more than we realize,” Leonardi said, melting with pride.

“I want there to be other Build Corps all around Akron, just like all this,” said Ruth Webb, 15, an Early College student.

As the group installs benches and planters at community gardens, picnic tables at parks, giant way-finding Adirondack chairs at Summit Lake or renovates an old home on Ira Avenue donated by Akron Promise, the spirit spreads. “We even have little junior [members] that volunteer,” Davis said.

The garage at the donated house is the headquarters. Standing inside, Davis envisions a bustling workshop in a city where every child has someone to look up to, maybe not an adult, just someone a little older who cares. “I want to be able to do what Jeff does for us for other kids,” Davis said. “When I was younger, there wasn’t something like that to be around, so it’s cool to influence them.”

Unconditional trust

Local nonprofits and churches hire SLBC for community projects. The group turns 2 years old in March. Its founders sought to build community with hard work and relationships.

It hasn't been all kumbaya. In fact, it's been as imperfect as life.

Leonardi has filed charges on three students over stolen property, hugging them in a courthouse hallway then uncomfortably testifying against them before a judge.

“We’ve experienced theft, physical fights. We’ve went to court with and against [the youth]. We’ve attended counseling with [them] and, therefore, had to seek much counsel in getting through some of this stuff. And even the hardest, we’ve experienced death,” Leonardi said, lamenting the loss of a former participant stabbed to death in an incident unrelated to the program.

With each "what the heck" moment "you come back a little wiser,” Leonardi said.

This summer, someone stole a generator the group was storing in the old pump station at the Summit Lake end of Ira Avenue. Last year, while reporting her laptop missing, Akron police noted that Leonardi often lets at-risk youth with nowhere to go stay at her house.

“It’s not just building stuff,” Leonardi said of her new family. “You’re all in. You don’t get to say, ‘that’s not my problem. It happened after school.' ”

Saved

“For me, I was an alcoholic whose wife divorced him [12 years ago]," said Horner, now 57. "I got crazy saved. And now I want to do what Jesus wants me to do.”

Leonardi, a long-distance runner, lost 30 pounds and nearly her life while battling double pneumonia for 21 days in the hospital. She emerged from a coma in 2013 more committed to life than ever.

She's been with South Street Ministries since 2009 when, on a chance Sunday, she first heard the Rev. Duane Crabbs talk about "the value of relationship and being present" in a sermon at the Front Porch Café at 798 Grant St. "We all have to learn how to be a part of something bigger than ourselves," Crabbs said in a recent interview. "It’s in those social connections that real relationship and healing can occur."

After three years living in Summit Lake with her former students, Leonardi bought a house and launched SLBC last March. “We work by faith because we don’t know where the next dollar is going to come from,” Horner said.


Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.