By: Jessica Holbrook
HARTVILLE The nonprofit is working to transform the former Lake Center Christian School into a hub of services.
When Kelli Viscounte walks through the empty school on Woodland Street SW, she sees something beautiful.
An empty classroom with cracked windows is a simple, cheery apartment. A wet concrete basement is a clothing closet filled with outfits for sizes of all ages. The principal’s office is a cafe, where folks can find help applying for jobs and kids can stop for breakfast before class.
Viscounte is the founder and executive director of Love Our Community, a Christian nonprofit launched last year with a goal of doing just that — loving people of Lake Township and meeting their needs, from housing to food to clothing to counseling.
With the help of donors, the organization recently purchased the former Lake Center Christian School building.The plan is to transform the two-story building, built around 1968, into a hub of services for Lake Township residents.
“This is truly a way for us to come together and meet needs,” Viscounte said.
Love Our Community has its roots in an Easter egg hunt.
In 2016, Viscounte was the director of outreach for RiverTree Lake Church. She had the “crazy thought of ‘what it would look like if we went out in the community and didn’t expect everyone to come to us?’”
So the church partnered with area businesses, organizations and other churches to hold a community egg hunt. With everyone working together, the event was a bigger success than anticipated and it continued to grow each year, she said.
That summer, several township families had house fires and needed assistance with clothing. That led to a community Clothing Closet, where families experiencing an emergency could quickly acquire clothing, blankets and toiletries. And it kept growing. They soon added summer meals and a Christmas event.
Last summer, Viscounte left her role at the church to run Love Our Community as a nonprofit. It was incorporated in September.
People in Lake Township often don’t realize how many of their neighbors are struggling, Viscounte said.
“Many urban communities are very good at saying, ‘Hey, we need help.’ Suburban communities say, ‘We’re fine, we’re fine, everything’s great’ and behind closed doors, things are falling apart,” she said.
The township has a homelessness problem, but people often don’t realize it because the issue is hidden. Homeless individuals and families are staying with friends or relatives or couch surfing, Viscounte said.
According to Stark County’s 2017 point-in-time count — an annual census of the homeless population — of the 1,510 people counted in the census, 583 people were in imminent risk of homelessness or living with family or friends, according to data from the Homeless Continuum of Care of Stark County.Many township families also struggle with food insecurity, she said.
According to the Ohio Department of Education, 17.5 percent of Lake Primary School students, 14.3 percent of Lake High School students and 18 percent of Lake Elementary School students receive free or reduced lunch.
“It’s hard for people to believe that. And every week, I have conversations with people that say they’ve lived here their entire lives and had no idea,” Viscounte said.
At the center of the Love Our Community building will be an anchor family.
The organization plans to have a family live and work in the building as a way to build strong relationships between the organization and clients.
When you’re close with someone, it’s much easier to hold them accountable, Viscounte said.
“That’s what we’re about, deep-connecting relationships. And walking beside someone, not in front of them or pushing them from behind, but truly being partners in this,” she said. “They have to want it more than we do.”
The organization is searching for its anchor family. Viscounte hopes it changes some perceptions on mission work, and a family called to be missionaries could look at their own community as a place to serve. Ideally, the family also would have foster children, though that isn’t a necessity, she said.The building would house other families.
The top floor of the school, now a collection of classrooms, will be transformed into apartments. One three-bedroom apartment, and two two-bedroom apartments that families facing homelessness or housing insecurity could live in for up to a year.
Those families would receive help from the organization, which would work with them on a plan for their future. Love Our Community also is looking into transitional housing, Viscounte said.
The goal is that families wouldn’t need to return to the apartments in the future, she said.
The building will have an emergent-need apartment — a studio apartment that someone facing an emergency, such as a fire, could live in for a few weeks until a more permanent solution is found.
The apartments will have kitchen and living areas. A hallway will be turned into a common area, with sensory activities, where residents could gather. Residents would have private parking and a separate entrance, in an effort to give them privacy and security.
“We want this to be welcoming. We want this to part of the neighborhood,” Viscounte said.
The housing model, including the anchor family, is a pilot project. If it works, Viscounte hopes to expand the model to other communities in the area.
Love Our Community also plans to offer a series of other services for those in need.
“We want to remove barriers and create opportunities for families to thrive,” she said.
Other plans for the building include:
The Hope Cafe. A space where folks could gather for job training. It also could provide free breakfast for students eligible for free or reduced lunch. The organization also is considering a mobile meal service for those families.
Free washers and dryers for those families involved with the organization who cannot afford to do laundry. The space would not be a laundromat, Viscounte said.
Public restrooms including a handicap-accessible shower.
An out building would be transformed into offices as well as space for medical visits or counseling services.
An expansion of the Clothing Closet to include workwear and sportswear. Families often can’t provide clothing for “spirit days” at school, so kids feel left out, Viscounte said. The closet would offer Lake High School gear as well as shirts for sports teams.
An expanded commercial kitchen that could be used by other nonprofits.
A gathering space in the former gymnasium. That space also could be used by other nonprofits or community groups.
Love Our Community tentatively plans to complete the project in a year to 18 months.
The organization has a great team of volunteers, Viscounte said. Folks have offered to take on tasks, like plumbing. They’ve also helped to secure donated materials — such as ceiling tiles and other features from the soon to be demolished Lake Middle School building, and commercial kitchen equipment from Lake Center Christian School.
The organization welcomes volunteers and donors. For more information, call 330-412-9876 or email LoveOurCommunityLake@gmail.com.
Folks also can donate online at loveourcommunity.net or at Consumers National Bank.
Viscounte is eager to see the project come to fruition.
“We could have filled this building multiple times over with families in this community,” she said.
“The timeline is yesterday,” she added laughing.