Its collaborative approach is becoming a national model.
Through all the years the former Reeb Avenue Elementary School sat vacant, it somehow escaped the fate that befalls so many abandoned buildings. Graffiti didn’t mar the walls, windows remained unbroken, copper didn’t end up in the hands of thieves.
So it was with care and a keen sense of place that civic and business leaders began to transform the now 114-year-old structure into a hub designed to holistically meet the needs of the struggling South Side of Columbus. Three years later, the Reeb Avenue Center is at full capacity, housing 13 nonprofits addressing such needs as adult education and workforce development, early childhood education and hunger.
Many of the Reeb Center’s clients have found themselves on unstable ground, due to poverty, addiction, homelessness and other causes. Executive Director Ally Zahler says the center helps them find solid footing again. “I truly believe in second chances,” Zahler says. “A lot of our neighbors have been told ‘no,’ or ‘later,’ or ‘maybe.’ Here, they’re not told that. It’s, ‘How can we help get you back on track?’ ”
“Our neighbors are so used to disappointment, and I believe when they come in the building, they truly feel a sense of hope,” says Crane Group CEO Tanny Crane, who along with Donatos Chairwoman Jane Grote Abell spearheaded the Reeb Center’s development. Both the Crane and Grote families have business and personal ties to Columbus’ South Side.
The project started with a survey of 2,700 homes in the neighborhood. “With a building this large, or with any building, you can fill it with things you think people need, but if it’s not what they really need, it’s not going to be used,” Zahler says.
Organizers sought nonprofits that already were established to ensure sustainability. “We want to make sure our neighbors know we’re here to stay,” Zahler says. Partners initially signed three-year leases as evidence of that commitment.
A $4 million endowment helps subsidize rent costs, but Zahler knows funding for nonprofits is never a given. “Some of our partners are funded yearly, and that’s a little nerve-wracking, but it keeps me on my toes. It makes me realize we have to provide something that makes our partners want to be here.”
Having multiple service organizations under one roof can ensure more seamless transitions from one provider to the next and lessens the chances of clients falling through the cracks. “Our most vulnerable citizens are spending half or a whole day traveling around Columbus to get the services they need,” Zahler says. “Why not help people who need it the most by providing those services in one location?”
“The beauty of Reeb is that clients can receive services from more than one partner; there is a plethora of organizations and skills in that building,” says Denise Robinson, president and CEO of Alvis. About 80 percent of those entering the Alvis program are from the South Side. “We wanted to be part of the reparation of the neighborhood,” Robinson says.
The size and scope of the 67,000-square-foot center can be daunting to someone entering for the first time. Community Navigator Jenna LaBorde, whose position is funded by United Way, helps people find their way. “What Jenna does is ‘hand-hold’ them to each organization to make sure their needs are met holistically,” Zahler says.
Zahler says one of the first people who walked through the doors was a homeless man living in an abandoned building. After participating in the House of Hope addiction recovery program, he connected with the Godman Guild, earned his GED and worked at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank operation—all partners within the Reeb building. He now is employed, has his own apartment and is in recovery, she says.
“Seeing people in the state they are when they walk in—it doesn’t matter if it’s one visit or six months or a year later—it’s following that journey and really seeing the impact.”
Zahler says she knows of no other centers like Reeb in Columbus but says the city is involved in discussions about the potential for something similar in the Hilltop.
During a recent visit, Peter Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, deemed Reeb “a unique national model,” Crane says.
Although the center may be at physical capacity, opportunities for additional partnerships remain. Crane says more companies are coming to the table as businesses see workforce development as a key to hiring qualified candidates.
Crane says the center has surpassed her expectations. “I’m more excited about it now than I was when it opened. … It’s my happy place.”