ST. LOUIS — As part of 5 On Your Side’s ‘A Way Forward’ campaign, we’re shining a light on the people dedicated to transforming some of St. Louis' forgotten neighborhoods.
Michael Woods is one of those people. He and his partner, Neal Richardson, started Dream Builders 4 Equity in 2016. It’s a nonprofit that's transforming neighborhoods and the lives of at-risk teens.
It’s no secret St. Louis is riddled with vacant and run-down buildings. The empty properties are eyesores that attract crime and drive down property values. But there are a number of groups working to turn that around.
"In order for us to sell these properties it’s not just going to be us making the home beautiful, but also changing the narrative around north St. Louis city. We have to make it to where people are proud to live here," said Woods.
Woods and Dream Builders 4 Equity have acquired five properties on Mallinckrodt Street in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The properties were donated through the neighborhood association.
"We're spending $0 on these acquisitions, but of course these are pretty cash intensive," Woods explained.
Once Dream Builders gets its hands on these properties, it puts the hands of teens to work. A big part of the nonprofit is rebuilding the lives of at-risk teens who themselves get the opportunity to rehab homes in the neighborhoods they grew up in.
"Most of our young people are from either north city or south city, and we are very intentional about that. We want to make sure that the folks who are doing the rehabs are also part of the community,” said Woods.
"I just love being a part of this cohort, working with the guys and actually having an impact on our community as well as learning about financial literacy and kind of giving me a head start to the future that I want to create for myself,” said 18-year-old Gerald Alonzo Burton Jr.
Burton Jr. is a senior at Mehlville High School and has been with the Dream Builders program for two years.
"I grew up on the west side in the 4200 block of Enright," he explained, which is in the Vandeventer neighborhood.
Burton Jr. said this opportunity has completely transformed him.
"Being exposed to these different things and aspects of life has been truly monumental and it got me on a path to where I see success and that’s it," he said.
These teens are learning lifelong skills with tools, construction and real estate. They're getting hands-on experience from contractors like Robert McCully of McCully homes.
"They're not my biological kids, but they're my kids," said McCully when asked about why he participates in Dream Builders.
McCully said the teens remind him of his own kids and he wants to make a positive impression on their lives.
Since Dream Builders got its start in 2016, it has rehabbed about 25 properties, which are now breathing new life into the neighborhood and the community.
"I think it’s such a powerful thing that we're both providing living proof that anything is possible," Woods said with a smile.
This is just the beginning for Dream Builders. Woods plans to purchase a vacant lot on Mallinckrodt to turn into a chess park. His vision is that this park will become a place for kids to come together and play the game together.
“Chess is the most amazing game. It helps us learn how to make wise decisions and it’s also about strategy and being strategic. It’s just a way to grow your mental capacity, but also be productive while you’re playing,” explained Woods.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED:
How can you be a part of this great effort? Woods said they're always looking for volunteers to come out and help clean up some of the streets where they've acquired properties. Materials and workers are essential to the process as well.
Getting the word out is huge, too. The more people who know about Dream Builders 4 Equity, the better chance they'll have at gaining support and funding.
Learn more on the Dream Builders 4 Equity website.