Throughout his career, no matter where he’s played, LeBron James has remained staunchly loyal to his hometown of Akron, Ohio. His off-court initiatives in the city started with an annual charity bike-a-thon, then evolved into educational investment in local students: in 2013 his foundation gave $280,000 worth of Samsung tablets to Akron third graders. “I had a notion, maybe we should start a school,” James tells TIME. “And people, besides those who were inside our bubble, didn’t believe we could accomplish that.”
In 2018, James’ I Promise School opened: it now has more than 450 students in 3rd through 6th grade, and students and their families receive access to services outside the classroom like medical care and mental-health support. High school students who are part of his I Promise program are offered the opportunity to attend the University of Akron and Kent State University for free. I Promise students and staff members recently appeared as the backdrop of a Wheaties box with James.
This is a different kind of Wheaties box. Our latest cover features the @ipromiseschool, founded by @ljfamfoundation. Visit the link in our bio to learn about how they are revolutionizing education and creating opportunities in @kingjames hometown of Akron, OH. pic.twitter.com/3hvjuv8FEo
— Wheaties (@wheaties) October 23, 2020
James, however, refuses to be complacent. “I said, ‘OK, what more can we do?’” says James.
On Tuesday, the world will find out: the LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF) plans to announce the latest step in its efforts to transform Akron: a 60,000-square-foot venue, called House Three Thirty—a nod to the city’s area code—which promises to offer a variety of services and opportunities, such as financial-literacy advice, job training and recreational activities for area youth. The foundation says these and other House Three Thirty amenities, like a dining space, coffee bar and private card room, will be available to the entire Akron community. “House 330 is going to be a sanctuary for our families,” says James. “It’s going to be a place where all our families can grow and learn. This will be a hub for everything possible our families will need.” According to LJFF, the facility should be fully up and running in 2022.
The concept for House Three Thirty germinated this summer, when LJFF staffers asked families who moved into the new I Promise Village—a transitional housing complex—about their biggest needs. “It really started, much like everything we do, from the ground up,” says LJFF executive director Michele Campbell. “You have more intimate relationship when you have people living in your building 24/7. We started listening to some of the struggles with employment and job training and really digging deeper with our families. So we learned pretty quickly that the next part of the movement, if you’re to going to change the trajectory of a whole community, was we need that job-training piece.”
The LJFF will run House Three Thirty, and students and families can work at places like the Old El Paso fast-casual dining outlet and receive hands-on job training in sectors across the facility like plumbing, heating and cooling, food service, merchandising, accounting and event planning. The foundation has acquired the Tangier, a local landmark event and entertainment complex that once hosted performances by Tina Turner and the Temptations, to house House Three Thirty; the building is located a few blocks from the I Promise School. “It’s a well-known name,” Victoria Young, whose great-grand niece is a twelfth-grader in the I Promise program. “So when you say, ‘Oh, I’m going down to Tangier tonight,’ anybody who’s somebody knows what the Tangier is. And now we’re going to know it’s Three-Three-O.”
The foundation is also partnering with JP Morgan Chase to provide a dedicated space where bankers will offer families specialized advice and other products to improve financial health. “LeBron is taking a real leadership role here,” JPMorgan Chase chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon tells TIME. “You’d think schools would be teaching financial education. Just like they should be teaching wellness and health and nutrition. All these studies show you start to save, you continue to save. These communities, white or Black, that are underbanked, or unbanked, it’s partially because the people don’t trust banks. They don’t really understand them, they don’t know them, they’re not coming and walking in them. Part of it is that we have to reach out. These community centers are a great way to reach out to people and just bring them in. Explain saving products, how checking accounts work, how you can get a checking account for your kids, start them on the process of saving.”
Dick’s Sporting Goods will helped the foundation turn the top of the Tangier parking garage into a youth sports complex; preliminary plans call for three basketball courts, a soccer field, and other recreation space. The J.M. Smucker HomeTown Hall will host meals and community events.
One major motivation for House Three Thirty is to broaden the foundation’s imprint on all of Akron. “People come by the school all the time, and they are taking pictures outside and they are intrigued, but you can’t have people off the streets just going into a classroom or walking into the village where people are living,” says Campbell. “So it’s really hard to let people into the magic that’s happening here. This facility, if you’re not in the I Promise program, is for you and allows you to be a part of that movement. This is our way to expand this movement to our whole community.”
“People who are in poverty,” says Young, who sits on the foundation’s parent advisory board, “this says to them, this is my chance.”
House Three Thirty will also house a museum dedicated to James, who just signed a two-year, $85 million contract extension with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s currently preparing to defend his most recent championship, which he won in October; James now has four titles, and the 2020-2021 season tips off on December 22. In June, James started a voting right organization, More Than A Vote, which helped recruit more than 40,000 workers to polling stations across the country: on December 10, TIME named James its Athlete of the Year. He hopes the House Three Thirty blueprint will be replicated in other cities.
“It’s another win for our families,” says James. “But also a win for the city of Akron, and then for the people that are actually going to be there and see our model and hopefully they take it to another community as well.”
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