As CEO of Peoria Friendship House of Christian Service, Marcellus Sommerville oversees daily operations of the nonprofit agency, which provides services such as food, clothing, education, employment preparation, and finance and employment coaching for both the Latino and English-speaking communities. A native of Peoria, Sommerville joined the organization in April 2020 after a 14-year professional basketball career in Europe. A former basketball star at Peoria High School and Bradley University, he led the Bradley Braves to the Sweet 16 in the 2006 NCAA Basketball Tournament. He is a regular volunteer at youth sports camps and founded the Next Generation Academy to develop and empower student-athletes and leaders of the next generation.
Tell us about your family and growing up in Peoria. How did you get your start in basketball?
Over the years, living in the Peoria area, our lifestyle was very fluid. We moved frequently to adapt and receive the assistance we needed in order to survive. My childhood was challenging, to say the least, but it prepared me for the future leadership and adaptation I needed to succeed in the world. Being the oldest of four, I filled in as a father, caregiver, provider and disciplinarian. My mother, Mary Cowan, was a huge part of my development, and I praise her hard work and determination to overcome some of her obstacles. When I was 11 years old, I moved in with my father, Carl Sommerville. His approach to raising a child was much different, but also helped develop the life lessons I needed to be successful.
My childhood was centered around sports. I played football (JFL Woodruff Warriors) and basketball (Proctor, Salvation Army, Carver Center) early on, but it wasn’t until middle school that I fell in love with the game of basketball. After not making the team as a fifth grader, my drive and motivation to succeed progressed rapidly. My father, along with my youth coaches, always found ways to push me to have fun while learning the skills needed to excel. I aspired to be like Michael Jordan—I loved the way he played the game so gracefully. His talents were off the chart. So as a kid, I dreamed of being like Mike!
What are some of the most memorable moments from your professional career?
I was privileged to be a part of so many memorable moments throughout my 14-year professional career. In 2009, 2010 and 2012, my teams made the finals in Europe. The work and effort a professional athlete endures year after year to pursue a title as a champion doesn’t come often, so I am very proud to have been a part of that success three times. During the 2010 season, our team was crowned champions of the LNB, the top league in France. I have created so many memories and friendships in Europe, on and off the court, that will last a lifetime.
One of my greatest memories was the birth of my youngest daughter, Liberty. She was born in Orleans, France, and has the option of dual citizenship. My wife Brooke and I named her after the Statue of Liberty to honor our experience living in both countries and the symbolism of the world. My oldest two children, Lathan and Londyn, adapted to Europe with ease and learned many valuable resources that continue to build their foundation of success. Both children are bilingual and share their experiences with others. My youngest son, Lawson, had remarkable experiences with hands-on learning in the European culture and language.
Basketball has given me so many opportunities to see the world—living in Paris, France; İzmir, Turkey; Würzburg, Germany; Corrientes, Argentina; and Tokyo, Japan, to name a few! I am so grateful for the continued love from my wife and family during my career. My wife’s support allowed me to focus on the growth and development needed to succeed. I never imagined playing professionally overseas for over 14 years, but I wouldn’t have changed my journey in any way. I am so grateful for the opportunity to see the world. It allowed me to adapt to the constant changes we face throughout life.
How did it feel to come back to your hometown after your basketball career?
I am fortunate to be home and establish a career here. The biggest reason we decided to move back to Peoria was to be closer to family and friends. We hold our families close to our heart, and the distance between us was very hard. After the passing of my mother in 2018, we felt the need to return to our loved ones. Peoria holds a special place for me and my family. It’s where our journey began!
How did you first become aware of Peoria Friendship House?
When I was a child, my mother was a part of the Peoria Friendship House and utilized services. They helped her through many difficult times, and I am eternally grateful. After retirement, I was in search of a place where I could utilize my leadership skills while providing support to our community. God is always working. Opportunities are presented and put in your path when you least expect it. The Peoria Friendship House CEO position was available, and I had the opportunity to give back. Our mission is “to do the work of Jesus Christ, providing hope, respect and guidance towards a path to prosperity.” I was called to help fulfill my purpose in our community.
Tell us more about the services the agency provides. What do you bring to the role as CEO?
Peoria Friendship House offers individualized advocacy, coaching, education and support to everyone who walks through our doors. It is a holistic approach towards a path to a better future. We assess each individual and provide a plan of action to eliminate the necessary obstacles in order to move forward to providing the resources needed for family growth.
As CEO, I am grateful to be able to share my strengths and experiences with our program managers. I am a forward thinker and empower others to use their skills to grow. Our staff brings so many resourceful strengths to our organization, and together we make a great team! We continue to expand our programs/services to meet the needs of our changing community. We are thankful for the support of so many and the continued referrals we receive in the area.
How has the pandemic affected the agency? What changes have you put in place to keep people safe?
Peoria Friendship House was directly affected by the shutdown at the beginning of the pandemic. Our clients are some of the most vulnerable and were affected greatly by loss of jobs, food deficits, and the essential needs for our youth. We identified the needs immediately to address the changes needed to adapt to emergency services. We opened our food pantry to provide extra distribution, offered rental/utilities assistance, expanded our computer lab for students to continue online learning with tutoring services, and expanded our Latino Outreach program to help those with language barriers navigate the new resources. Assessing the urgent needs of our community was our top priority. We adjusted to the changes and are continuously looking for new ways to help fill the gaps.
What plans are in store for Peoria Friendship House in 2021?
We continue to push forward during these uncertain times. We have expanded our programming to include onsite tutors and mentors to help address the educational gaps from e-learning. We are also adding enrichment programs to give students access to hands-on learning experiences and skills for future development. Through the ICC GEER Project, our college students will continue to provide workplace services and employment readiness. We will continue to assess and propose individual and family planning for our families in need. Our Latino Outreach program, La Familia, is offering new services and referrals to accommodate newly identified needs. Our fundraising efforts look different this year (virtual), but will still provide the funds needed to sustain our programs. Our most urgent need is support of “The 800 Club.” Please join us in raising $800 from 800 people for 800 NE Madison Avenue. Visit 1800myhouse.com to learn more.
Tell us about your family foundation and the Next Generation Academy (NGA). How do these programs make a difference in the lives of student-athletes?
A student’s spirit is a powerful energy. Whether they are in kindergarten or high school, they have an innate desire to push the limits and strive to achieve their full potential!
Next Generation Academy’s mission is to empower student-athletes through a culture and professionalism by a strong pursuit of improvement and the desire to motivate them on and off the court. I founded NGA in 2018 while playing professionally in Israel. That summer, it began as a week-long camp, which I directed while I was home during the off-season. After retirement, I pursued plans to expand it to a full-service youth basketball organization including training, clinics, 3v3 league, camps, AAU teams and more. We not only teach kids on the court, but life lessons off the court by instilling the slogan, “BElieve in YOUrself!”
The Marcellus Sommerville Foundation was founded in 2014 to inspire and empower students and to make a difference in the world through education and basketball. It has grown from 150 students to over 1,250 students across central Illinois who have taken part in our annual Back to School Bash program, which provides educational workshops, uniforms, basketball clinics, backpacks filled with school supplies, and a fresh start to the school year. Through our mentorships, we help students recognize their untapped potential to make a difference, and we challenge them to set a new standard of success. PM