CHICAGO – Sam Acho is growing something special on the West Side.
The former Bears linebacker is helping tackle two problems plaguing the Austin neighborhood – access to fresh food and a path to employment.
“In all reality, we know Chicago is our home whether it’s for one year, tens years or a lifetime. We have a responsibility to do something about what we see in our communities. We can’t just hang out in the suburbs and act like things on the South Side and the West Side are getting better when they’re not. We have the opportunity to follow the lead of the youth and make a change.”
Acho and over a dozen Chicago athletes raised half a million dollars to transform one of the 17 liquor stores in the area into a grocery store at 423 N. Laramie Avenue.
It had it’s soft opening Wednesday, but Austin Harvest’s open air market may have never become a reality if not for a bus tour of the neighborhood with Azariah Baker – one of the kids helping run the market.
She said something Acho has carried with him ever since.
“You all see this as a field trip. but I live here. People choose to live here and raise their families here. They choose to do it. It’s not a burden. There’s no doubt or anxiety. It’s a choice,” remembered Acho. “For me, seeing people who live here like Azariah, who have made the choice to call this place home and made the choice to make this place better – what is there not to say yes to? Why not be a part of what’s happening in the community?”
Baker is one of ten students participating in the 12-week entrepreneurship program at the store, where they’ll receive a $3,000 educational stipend while learning how to start a business.
“I have an opportunity to build a better life for myself and I want to take advantage of that.,” explained Baker, a 10th grader at Westinghouse. “Look what we’ve done here. We’ve grown friendships, partnerships. We’ve given this community the opportunity to rise and we’re 15 and 16. It’s really a matter of – there’s no excuse. You can either be a part of the problem or be a part of the change and that’s what we’ve chosen.”
Acho has been a guiding light for Baker and the kids at By The Hand Club, ever since he started talking to them a few years ago.
“He’s an incredibly real person. The amount of hope and opportunities he’s instilled with us, it’s incredible. I see him and my day gets better. I see him and I know I’m going to have opportunities for something better, for change,” Baker remarked. “He is my source of hope, truly because he didn’t even live here and he saw this and he wanted to do better. It gives me an entirely perspective of the world I live in. It let’s us know that people care. I’m fortunate to call him my best friend and I love him.”
“Football is so transient. You’re on one team this year, on a different team the next year. It can feel a little bit unstable. But for me and this is just facts, my reality and my stability has been coming back to this neighborhood, hanging out having a friendship with Azariah, having a friendship with the kids you’ll see working at this food mart. That’s been my stability. Football comes football goes, but friendships last forever.”