The Ohio Medicaid director had just unleashed some staggering statistics — newborns die at a higher rate in parts of Akron than anywhere else in the state.
At a meeting four years ago in downtown Akron, state Rep. Emilia Sykes surveyed the crowd's response. Hospital leaders and health care professionals jumped at the chance to tout their efforts to reduce infant mortality.
But the meeting was about finding people who care enough to question the lack of progress. And it was the Rev. Eugene Norris, who knew little of infant mortality until then, who "really moved" the state legislator.
"He was probably the most audibly upset that these groups had stood up and talked about all the good they had done in connecting people with resources," said Sykes. On that day in her hometown, where newborn babies, especially those of color, still die at disparately high rates, Sykes heard a community leader activate.
"It almost felt like the wool was being pulled from his eyes," Sykes said of Norris, who now employs five community health workers serving more than 100 pregnant women or new mothers and their babies in Akron.
Eliminating infant mortality by helping men understand their families' needs and connecting women with safe housing, transportation, prenatal care and more is the latest mission Norris is leading at Mountain of the Lord Fellowship in West Akron.
Inside this church in a former roller rink on Copley Road, faith and public funding mix under the name Charisma Community Connection. Norris formed the nonprofit community development corporation (CDC) in 2002. The church opened in 2000.
Fame Fathers is the a flagship program Norris created to keep dads in the picture. The mission is to break generational cycles of poverty and single-parenting by providing life skills and jobs that lift up families.
His efforts even caught the attention of then President Barack Obama, who invited Norris to the White House to talk about empowering marginalized communities.
“Our goal is to empower the community,” Norris said. “We don’t want them to just have a handout from us. We want to give them a hand up to where they can stand for themselves.
"Ours is a missional business," he said. "But none of our programs are run by the church.”
Norris returned to Akron 20 years ago with a clean-shaven head, a signature bow tie, seminary degrees from Bible colleges in Oklahoma and Minnesota and a knack for getting government money.
The Buchtel High School graduate and pastor went to work at the Association for Better Community Development in Canton in 1992. For five years, and three more at the Cleveland Housing Network, Norris helped communities in 33 eastern Ohio counties turn utility company donations and federal grants into jobs and affordable, energy-efficient housing that helped seniors age in place.
But the former paramedic and firefighter “had the itch to get back home.” He saw public money supporting faith-based efforts in the early days of the George W. Bush administration and decided to open a church and community development corporation to pack more punch than the Sunday and Wednesday sermons.
"His church is a blessing to the community, but he’s just a great community partner," said Russ Neal, who represents West Akron on City Council after defeating Norris in 2013.
Norris said he has no political ambitions today. Instead, he serves the public through Charisma. The CDC is a fiscal agent for more than a dozen local nonprofits and businesses that offer community programming. Neal recalled one small locally owned business that was able to get contracts to cut grass on city lots.
"He’s real involved," said Neal. "He’s taken his professional background and parlayed it with ministry to better the ward."
Charisma got a $110,000 grant from the Ohio Community Development Finance Fund in 2015 to buy Maple Valley Cleaners and its satellite locations in Wallhaven and Green. Since then, he's doubled staffing at the Copley Road location by hiring locals like Diane Butler.
Born at St. Thomas Hospital 61 years ago, Butler left Atlanta to return to Akron in 2014 to be close to one of her two children and her mother, who is buried in Glendale Cemetery.
She worked irregular hours cleaning hotel rooms before a friend brought her to Mountain of the Lord Fellowship, where Norris offered her a job at the cleaners.
"Everyone loves you. And I've never really found that in a church," said Butler, who also appreciates her new boss and the steady income.
"I don't have everything I want," she said. "But I'm humble for everything I have. And I just feel home."
In a conference room at the church, Chelsie McNeil recently thought back three years.
She had no confidence, no motivation, no car, no high school diploma, no handle on her emotions and "mixed up priorities." She was 21 years old, pregnant and living in an Akron hotel with a boyfriend.
“I was the type of person who would rather struggle than ask for help,” she said, recalling how she "flew the coop" to show her parents, who live in Florida and North Carolina, that she could hold her own.
She worked 10-hour shifts until 2 a.m. at a fast food restaurant to afford a Middlebury apartment with leaking roof vents and crumbling wood floors with nails poking up. McNeil would only let her daughter, Mayleen, who was almost 1 at the time, crawl on the bed.
She was prepared to take her landlord to court when Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority approved her application for an apartment near the Akron Zoo. "And she didn't go to Edgewood by herself," said Donna Youngblood, one of five community health workers at Charisma.
Youngblood, a gospel minister from New Orleans who attends Mountain of the Lord, has 30 mothers or pregnant women in her case file. "I'm very passionate about my moms," said Youngblood. She helped McNeil every step of the way, from accessing prenatal care to good parenting to holding her landlord accountable and applying for help with gas and electric bills.
Housing is the No. 1 need for her mothers, said Youngblood, who measures success in her clients' self-sufficiency.
Now 24, McNeil has her GED. She drives for Lyft and is enrolling at Stark State this summer to get an associate degree in business management.
For Youngblood, earning $20 an hour to empower young families is God's work. "It's a passion for people and a passion for succeeding. And when it comes to babies, I'm overly protective," she said.
Charisma runs on a $350,000 annual budget, about 80 percent from grants.
Norris relies on grants and reimbursements from Ohio’s Health and Medicaid departments, federal housing programs, the city of Akron and Summit County Public Health. The more local the money, the more likely he can use it for fathers. State and federal sources, he said, limit support to mothers.
In 2009, Norris started Fame Fathers to give fatherhood the same honor as regional halls of fame for professional football, famous inventors and rock ‘n’ roll music.
The program helps 200 men yearly learn everything from how pregnancy and birth affect women to safe sleep habits for newborns. The program culminates in a late summer walk to school just for dad. Some 500 father figures walked the first year before peaking at 6,500 in 2017.
Last year, Norris and a facilitator flew out to Charlotte and Phoenix to help their communities adopt the program, which spread to Indianapolis the year before. In this 10th annual walk on Sept. 19 in Akron, he’s calling on high school football players and law enforcement to lend a hand to children whose fathers can't be there, whether they're working, imprisoned, dead or just not in the picture.
Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.