A Publication of WTVP

Building Peoria …

by Denise Jackson | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Build Peoria Board President Nick Yates at the Donovan Park sculpture garden, one of the organization's projects
Build Peoria Board President Nick Yates at the Donovan Park sculpture garden, one of the organization's projects

one soul-saving, belly-filling, neighborhood-protecting project at a time

Spring can be a coming out of sorts for central Illinoisans. Many shed winter’s layers of clothing with the arrival of warm weather. Others head to the ballpark for opening day and another season of Peoria Chiefs baseball.

May also signals a shift at one local nonprofit. This month, Build Peoria will choose five finalists for its annual community building project after accepting nominations through March 31.

Each year, Build Peoria selects one community project to receive a sizeable grant. All projects are vetted and must be completed within one year. Since its inception six years ago, Build Peoria has raised nearly $400,000 in private contributions for these endeavors. The ultimate recipient is chosen by public vote.

Build Peoria Board President Nick Yates says that the projects must be tangible.

“We want to be able to point to it and say, ‘We did that,’” Yates said.

A wing and a prayer

Yates laughs as he describes Build Peoria’s impromptu beginning.

“We were sitting down at Wing Fest, where a bunch of restaurants got together and donated their wings to compete for whoever has the best wings. I was sitting there and thinking to myself, ‘Wait a minute, they didn’t incur any costs. But we all paid $30 a ticket and there’s a thousand people here.’

“Someone came to the mic and said, ‘Thanks for coming out today. We just raised $30,000 for Friendship House.’ I’m like what, all we did was drink beer and eat wings. Wow, I would like to do more of that.”

In 2017, Yates pulled together a small group of friends, who then mapped out plans for what soon would become Build Peoria.

Going to the dogs

Build Peoria’s first project was a dog park in Peoria Heights. For that first chili cook-off fundraiser in 2017, people were willing to pay $30 a ticket. Within a span of about seven months, the nonprofit had raised $50,000 through ticket sales, sponsorships and in-kind donations. Soon Build Peoria was offering memberships to stimulate more community involvement. Now, anyone can nominate projects through the organization’s website.

With a focus solely on fundraising, Build Peoria does not operate like many traditional nonprofit organizations that operate out of an office with staff. There is a volunteer board of directors.

“We are a bunch of young professionals who wanted to give back to the community. Our mission is to be able to unite the community through our love of the Peoria area and to … physically build it into a better place,” said Yates, 40, who works as a manager at Caterpillar.

Neighborhoods to protect

One symbol of Build Peoria’s success is the resident police officer house on Madison Avenue in the city’s North Valley neighborhood.

Peoria Police Officer Keith Burwell now lives in the house, which was built by an Italian stone cutter named Pete Pendola in 1925. Many people who knew the history of the home wanted it preserved. In any case, there was a consensus that having a police officer occupy a long-vacant apartment building that had been the site of multiple search warrants and arrests over the years was a superior alternative.

Build Peoria put $150,000 toward the project, its largest gift to date with a majority of those dollars coming from the Gilmore Foundation. The house was completely gutted. With volunteer labor, the structure got new insulation, windows, doors, plumbing, heating, air conditioning and other amenities.

Burwell said the house has been a great place to live, and his neighbors seem to be happy, too.

“The majority I have spoken to have been overwhelmingly supportive,” he said. “They like the idea of having an officer in the neighborhood, someone they can have direct contact with to address problems in the community.”

Souls to save

In another project, a South Side Peoria minister who had a plan for connecting families with his church caught the attention of some community stakeholders. The Rev. Alvin Riley is the pastor of Sovereign Grace Missionary Baptist Church. Community members Hedy Elliott-Gardner and Bob Woolsey were intrigued by Riley’s proposal for a park and nominated it for the Build Peoria prize. Potent Gratitude Park got the funding and is now under construction.

The Rev. Alvin Riley stands near a shelter under construction at his Sovereign Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Peoria
The Rev. Alvin Riley stands near a shelter under construction at his Sovereign Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Peoria

“Among … the things we want to do with the park is open it up to the community and provide a safe haven for family reunions and gatherings,” said Riley. “It will provide a peaceful place where we can get opportunities to talk … and just kind of bring people together with love and joy.”

There were some obstacles standing in the way of Riley’s vision: three vacant homes on the property that had become eyesores. “We wanted to give the community something more pretty to look at, something to hope for,” he said.

With $80,000 from Build Peoria, the homes were purchased and demolished and the park began to take shape. Landscaping work will be completed this spring. Benches and a bicycle rack will be included in time for summer.

“I plan to add a bike riding club to keep our kids safe so that we can try to eliminate some of the violence in our community,” said Riley.

Potent Gratitude Park sits across the street from Proctor Recreational Center. “I go over and play ball with the young kids. I also invite them over to our side, give them treats, something to drink and things of that nature,” said Riley. “We get a chance to talk. One of my biggest goals as a pastor is to see lives turned around in a positive direction.

“It’s … a heavy burden in your heart when you have to hold funerals for so many young people. Your goal becomes, ‘What can I do now to try and slow some of this down?’ That was my passion in creating this park.”

Stomachs to feed

Julie Eliathamby’s passion is helping people solve problems. As the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Peoria Grown, Eliathamby provides fresh vegetables and other produce to communities where there are no full-service grocery stores.

Julie Eliathamby, left, founder and executive director of Peoria Grown, works at her Market 309, a provider of fresh, affordable foods
Julie Eliathamby, left, founder and executive director of Peoria Grown, works at her Market 309, a provider of fresh, affordable foods

“We carry about 60 to 70 different items. All the produce items are a dollar,” Eliathamby said.

Two years ago, Peoria Grown launched Market 309 as a temporary solution for addressing food insecurity in inner city neighborhoods. The Hy-Vee grocery store at Peoria’s Sheridan Plaza provides most of the produce, along with some local farmers. Peoria Grown subsidizes the food costs with private donations and grants.

The need is so great that Market 309 has expanded from one location to three, said Eliathamby. South Peoria residents can buy produce at Trewyn Park Pavilion from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday. Market 309 is open at the Peoria Women’s Club on Thursday from 6 to 7:30 p.m., and at Bradley University on Fridays from 3 to 5 p.m. Market 309 needs a permanent location to meet the increased demand, said Eliathamby.

“We need to make it into a real market that’s open five or six days a week,” she said. “Right now, we’re once a week. We’re not serving enough. We’re not even making a dent.

“We sell out within 45 minutes. Families get so mad at us because they know if they come after 12 noon, we have nothing left.”

As Build Peoria’s 2022 community project winner, Market 309 will get $50,000 to find that permanent home. Meanwhile, Build Peoria also awarded grants to City Link for two bus shelters and to Peoria Park District and Donovan Sculpture Garden for concrete pads to hold artwork.

As for this year’s recipient, Yates isn’t dropping any hints. But you can bet project supporters are blowing up social media in hopes of garnering enough votes to win Build Peoria’s coveted cash prize.

Denise Jackson

is a native South Sider and former television journalist who now represents District 1 on the Peoria City Council