By Brett Hetherington*
“Street by street, block by block. It is not simplistic, but it is simple,” says the Rev. Don Ackerman of how Canton for All People is effecting change among the chaos and brokenness of Canton, Ohio neighborhoods.
Canton for All People is a community development corporation formed by Crossroads United Methodist Church (Tuscarawas District) in partnership with the Lemmon and DeHoff family foundations to bring quality housing and opportunities for all people to downtown Canton. The development corporation was formed to help the church address two of its primary focus areas: overcoming poverty together and seeking health and wholeness for all. Canton for All People has a clear plan in place and has taken many steps in its mission to address issues of enhancing public safety and public health, providing affordable housing options, promoting educational opportunities, and helping to break the cycles of poverty.
“I believe the future of local church ministry will have to impact the community around the building if we are going to have a vital witness for Jesus Christ. The challenge is clergy don’t get these kinds of community development skills in seminary or college or anything like that. He’s [Ackerman] done the grunt work to learn how to do all this and is willing to share with others. We need to free clergy from all the focus on building maintenance, and empower them to make a far greater impact in community development,” shared Ed Fashbaugh, executive director of Connectional Ministries for the East Ohio Conference.
Canton for All People is currently working on renovating several homes in the Canton area that when completed will become affordable housing for families in need.
“We take vacant, blighted homes, buy them and we fix them up. And we do about two things with them. They go either to our healthy homeownership opportunities, or we sell these homes back for $90,000 or less to homeowners in Canton, Ohio,” said Ackerman, lead pastor of Crossroads UMC and executive director of Canton for All People.
About one third of the homes that that are purchased are held on to and serve as rental homes because people still need to have rentals to live in. According to Ackerman there are no non-profit organizations in Canton, Ohio providing these kinds of rentals. The local housing authority used to but has since sold all their homes.
“Canton for All People has made my living situation better,” shared Omari Allen. “I now have a landlord who will take care of things when broken. The street is looking nicer and more colorful with the new siding. It’s an attractive neighborhood to live in now.”
Canton for All People has also created jobs through its home renovation initiative by hiring its own construction crew, something that not all community development corporations are able to do.
“We have a construction team, our construction manager and three construction staff (one part-time and two full-time) where we were able to secure a grant to hire these kids out at $19 an hour. And they’re on the same health care plan all of our pastors are,” said Ackerman. “And I will tell you, the kids that we hired, they live in the neighborhood. One of the kids we hired actually lived in one of the houses we were working on and was going to move before we came in and bought the house. Well, as he was preparing to move, he started volunteering with us with our construction manager. Turns out he was good with molding and trim and so we gave him a job. And now he’s fully invested in making this neighborhood a better place.”
Ackerman stressed the importance of finding the assets in the church to utilize in community restorations such as these. Relationships that were built led to the formation of the construction team. His wife and others were able to offer insight on how to lay out the home once construction was nearing completion to make for an efficient house for the new occupants. And by tapping into existing relationships and assets already within the congregation the organization is also able to find other ways to cut down on its operating costs.
Gunshot Wound / First-Aid Training
Last summer Canton for All People addressed the very real problem of gun violence in its community.
“We kept running into this rash of shootings, kids, youth were wielding guns in the neighborhood, and it had been causing a whole bunch of trouble,” Ackerman shared. “We had a monthly board meeting where we always go over neighborhood events from the last month. It’s like we had three months in a row of board meetings where somebody got killed in the neighborhood. Well, the youngest of our board members asked, ‘why don’t we just teach kids first-aid?’”
This question led to the purchase of approximately 500 first-aid kits, and with the support of both the fire department and the police department, the Black Nurses Association helped organize first-aid sessions at parks in three downtown neighborhoods with the highest rates of violent crime. Children between the ages of three-years-old and 12-years-old were given training on how to use gauze to apply pressure to a gunshot wound until an adult arrives, among other practical first-aid information, and children were able to practice on each other.
Demolition of Canton Inn
For years many community members have sought the demolition of the Canton Inn that had become a nuisance because of many illicit activities that were alleged to have taken place within its rooms. What others could not accomplish, the consistent ministry of Ackerman and the people of Crossroads UMC and Canton for All People helped to bring about – thanks to relationships cultivated over decades of serving a weekly community meal.
Following demolition of the Canton Inn late last month Ackerman shared that it wasn’t his relationship with the city alone that helped close the Inn.
“No, just my relationship with the owner, the management, the drug dealers, the pimps who traffic women in and out of there. Frankly, the church’s relationship because we provide breakfast, we feed those folks. They take the breakfast that we’re going on for 34 years. We get in the van. We drive the railroad track and find people, you know, just to give them breakfast. People trusted us. The owner doesn’t trust the city, and what they’re going to do. He does trust Pastor Don because Pastor Don is there every Sunday. It is frankly evil – sinister even – what he had going on in that building, but even he was not going to deny the fact of seeing this church show up in this building. That owner knows that we have those people’s best interests at heart.”
There are plans in place to utilize the land formerly occupied by the Canton Inn to build affordable housing for people who are in need in the city of Canton.
Southeast Community Wellness Center
On the Southeast side of Canton there is another frontier that has held challenges of its own. This area has not had a grocery store since 1972. Factories in the vicinity closed about 40 years ago when the highway opened cutting through the neighborhood and isolating an area of the city in which now approximately 9,000 people live.
“NPR (National Public Radio) came down and did a story and showed that it takes a resident of the Southeast three and a half hours to get their groceries from the southeast at Wal-Mart. In fact, Wal-Mart is down here on the West” Ackerman shared.
Canton for All People has come up with a solution for at least part of this problem in the form of an abandoned 11,000 square foot building that previously housed a preschool program. The building is currently in the process of being renovated to accommodate both a community health clinic and grocery store.
This dream began in 2020 during a Christmas give-away in the parking lot where 2,000 children showed up. Every other organization had cancelled their give away programs due to COVID concerns, and Canton for All People were the only ones offering aid in this fashion. Every child received a present.
“The mayor was there that night and he commented that we feed everyone else in the city of Canton but no one down here,” said Ackerman. The next week plans began to take shape to utilize the empty building and as of late November 2022 $1.9 million has been raised to renovate the building – with the construction bids totaling only $1.7 million.
Stark Fresh stepped in to serve as the lead to run what would become the area’s first non-profit grocery store. A combination of a grant from the East Ohio Conference, the partnership with Stark Fresh and partnerships with food banks will allow the operating costs for the first 10 years to be virtually nothing.
“Any money we make after overhead goes into something called the Southeast Community Development Fund. We didn’t just get the building. We got the two acres to the north. Any money the market generates goes back into the neighborhood back into the base for the hope, dreams, and aspirations of the neighborhood. They’re already dreaming about barbershops and laundromats and pizza shops and everything else that we hope to deliver in the next 10 years. But that was United Methodist churches coming together and saying, ‘I’ll take overhead off this market for the next 10 years.’”
A partnership with My Community Health allowed half of the space to be dedicated to a vastly underserved population as well. “This facility actually ended up being federally-qualified to focus on women’s health in a neighborhood that has the highest infant mortality rate in our city,” shared Ackerman.
Getting People on Board
Canton for All People is unique in how it operates. It has made bold strides in effecting change in the city of Canton and in the individual lives of residents. It is a model of what a church can be within the community in which it resides when the people are committed to serving as the hands and feet of Jesus and bringing the Gospel to people in real, tangible ways.
Tuscarawas District Superintendent Rev. Cara Stultz-Costello summed up the energy and passion that drives the heart of this ministry. “It is such a delight to partner in ministry with the people at Crossroads and Canton for All People. To even be a small part of what God is doing in and through that congregation as I am as a superintendent, a resourcer, an encourager, it is so clear to me that the Holy Spirit is just zooming around that space and that the Holy Spirit is saying ‘You can join me, or you can get out of the way.’ And Crossroads and Canton for All People are saying ‘We join you Holy Spirit.’”
Canton for All People is an idea so simple in concept that it can happen virtually anywhere. It is built upon what every church has – people. People are our greatest asset. Without people working together, forming relationships, the transformation that is changing a community and its residents would have never happened. Illicit activities would still be occurring in a nuisance establishment. Houses would not have been purchased to be rehabilitated into affordable housing for families in need. Children in high-crime areas who are desensitized to the brutality of gun violence would not have been given essential first-aid training that could help them save a life. And a grocery store would not be on the verge of being realized within a food desert, complete with a clinic that will treat underserved women.
Learn more about Canton For All People (EOC Fund 9978).
What Canton for All People does is not simplistic, but it is simple. It is changing lives every day – and attracting attention. While the East Ohio Conference Communications team has been working on this story so have the following local, state, and national news outlets:
Communities Offer Kids First-Aid Training for Gun Violence
Canton awards $1.3 million to southeast health center, grocery
Nonprofit leaders discuss southeast Canton market plans
‘Nuisance’ motel in Canton demolished; what could replace it
Canton city officials tear down building to fight crime, drug activity
Facing the wrecking ball: Canton Inn comes down
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Executive Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at email@example.com.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.