Nine years ago Shamayim (Shu) Harris suffered the worst thing that can happen to a parent. She lost her two-year-old son, Jakobi, when he was killed by a hit-and-run driver on Rhode Island Ave. in Highland Park.
For a few years she searched for a way to honor his memory. For about four of those years she drove down a blighted block on Avalon St. in Highland Park. Born in that city, she decided the best way to create a memorial for her son as well as help Highland Park was turn that block into an eco-village.
Harris, a former school administrator, went to sleep with a dream and woke up with plan that would transform the neighborhood from blight to beauty and make it completely self-sufficient – a community that is completely off the grid.
Her first step was to bid on the house at 24 Avalon at an auction. Her winning bid was $3,000, much more than she had. Not a problem, Harris says. “I knew it would work out.”
A friend in Chicago kicked in $1,500, a $46 income tax check came in and she had her paycheck. She got the house and moved in. Since then she has been buying properties on her block. Today, she owns 10 properties and expects to acquire four more by the end of the month. Some will be refurbished, others are slated for teardown.
She’s cleared the land next to house and is building the Jakobi Ra Park. When it’s finished there will be a memorial plaque for her son, whose middle name is Ra, after the Egyptian sun god. To the ancient Egyptians, the sun represented light, warmth, and growth, which seems perfect for this neighborhood.
It also seems perfect that Harris added a solar street light on the land between her home and the park. Working with the nonprofit Soulardarity on a Crowdfund project, she was able to get the light virtually cost-free. That organization works to install solar-powered streetlights in Highland Park. More solar lights will be added to Avalon Village.
Harris is a dynamo, who surrounds herself with others who have a positive outlook on life and are ready to take on any challenge.
“We need to stop blaming and just get things done,” she says. “At some point people must get the power within themselves to do things for themselves and their families.”
Like buying her house, Harris has everything on Avalon St. with limited resources and an unwavering faith it will work out.
A $100,000 donation came from the Big Sun Foundation, a nonprofit founded by members of the music group Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The band performed a charity concert at Coachella in California with the proceeds going to the village. The foundation works with visionaries and innovators already on their way to creating a better life for their communities, but need some help in getting there.
Of that donation, $65,000 is being applied to the current Kickstarter and the remainder is earmarked for ongoing construction work at the Avalon Village.
A Kickstarter campaign underway right now could raise additional funds. Harris has until June 23 at 6:04 am to raise at least $241,900 is pledged. She’s about half way there. As with all Kickstarter campaigns you have to reach your goal or you get nothing. (It you’d like to donate click here.)
There’s also a fundraiser on June 21 from 6-8 p.m. at American Coney Island.
Harris and Fox 2 reporter Charlie LeDuff will band together to push the Avalon Village over the top of its $241,900 Kickstarter campaign. It’s a $20 donation cover charge at the door. You get a Coney and fries, a free drink from the cash bar and one raffle ticket for a chance to win a weekend getaway vacation to Las Vegas. You can RSVP on Facebook.
Harris is confident the Kickstarter dollars will come through.
She expects the first phase of Avalon Village to be finished in September. Specifically on September 23, nine years to the day after Jakobi was killed.
Here’s a look at what Avalon Village will look like when it’s all done.
A brick house from the 1920s is being refurbished and turned into the Homework House where kids can come after school for tutoring and meals. Some of the dollars from the Big Sun Foundation are being used for this project.
The Homework House will also offer GED preparedness programs, have a mini library, a recording room, and washing machines as well as extra socks and belts. Many kids don’t always have clean clothes and are short socks and belts.
“Most of our kids go to school outside the neighborhood and many don’t have any place to go after school,” Harris says. “This way we can tuck our children out of harm’s way.”
The Homework House will be eco-friendly. It will use solar panels and, believe it or not, plants and worms will clean the sewage.
“We are making the vision come true,” says Gerrajh Surles, of Ako Building Corp. and Avalon Village project manager. “It is a big science project.”
His company will also hire Highland Park residents and teach them the jobs.
Next to the Homework House there’ll be a basketball, tennis and volleyball courts.
Harris will soon add shipping containers to a cement slab between her house and Jakobi Ra Park. The containers will house the Goddess Marketplace where local women can sell their products such as jewelry.
There will also be a healing center to teach yoga and meditation.
At the end of street an abandoned gas station will be transformed into the Blue Moon Café, which will be used for community dinners. A greenhouse will be right next to the café. The plan is for it to grow the food served in the restaurant.
Harris would also like to turn an abandoned house on the other side of the street into a home of homeless men that would help them get their bearings.
Harris is patient but committed.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” she says. “We’ve been at this for four years. All it takes is time.
“Highland Park just needs a kick start.”
With her tenacity, passion and dedication to the memory of her son, that kick start could certainly turn Avalon Village into what its namesake stood for.
In Celtic mythology, Avalon was an earthly paradise generally described as a land of plenty where eternal spring, health, and harmony reigned. That may be overly optimistic but as we said Harris went to sleep with a dream and woke up with plan. That plan is taking shape.