When Odetta Fields and Tamika Compton, who live in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood, learned of a father who couldn’t afford to pay for his daughter’s burial, they wanted to help. They knew the man had already lost his wife and other children a few years back. He was literally the last person left in his family.
So, under the banner of a resident-led group they’ve playfully dubbed the Community Yahoos, they organized a benefit. Soon, they’d raised enough money to pay for the daughter’s cremation, and at least spared the father this additional grief.
The Community Yahoos launched two years ago after longtime friends Compton and Fields bemoaned the lack of safe trick or treating in the neighborhood. Rather than simply complaining about it, they created Trick or Treat on Fleet, inviting businesses on Fleet Avenue to serve as waystations to help pass out candy. During the Covid-19 pandemic last year, more than 500 people showed up for the safe, socially distanced event.
Since their launch, the Yahoos, which consists of a core group of half a dozen volunteers, have given out toys at Christmas, helped families avoid eviction or pay utility bills, and handed out masks and PPE at a green space called the Garden of Life behind Daisy’s Ice Cream on Fleet Avenue. On a recent cold night in January, they passed out 200 blankets, 3,000 masks and 700 face shields at a nearby social hall.
Fields, who grew up in the area, said she was tired of going to block clubs and hearing people complain. “We wanted to make a group that does nothing but positive things,” she said.
Compton, who moved here in 2008 and goes by Meeka, said that the Covid-19 pandemic has hit Slavic Village hard, and they’ve stepped up their efforts to help as a result.
“A lot of people still don’t have jobs,” said Compton. “The cost of living, the cost of food has gone up, but that doesn’t mean your income has gone up. They were struggling, and now they’re struggling even more.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half of the neighborhood lived in poverty before the pandemic, and a recent New York Times article estimated that the area has a 30% unemployment rate.
One of the problems in Slavic Village is that because people isolated during the Covid-19 pandemic, they don’t always know where to get help. Using social media, flyers, phone calls and word-of-mouth organizing, the Community Yahoos try to get the word out to those who need it the most.
Fields, who is white, and Compton, who is black, said their group embraces the neighborhood’s racial diversity. Although Slavic Village is now nearly evenly split between white and black residents, many say there is still racism in the community. Recently, University Settlement had its Black Lives Matter sign stolen three times, and has yet to identify the culprit despite offering a $500 reward.
Compton, who grew up in Glenville on Cleveland’s east side, remembers coming to Slavic Village with her grandfather when she was a kid and leaving before dark. Things have changed somewhat since then, she said. She moved here in 2008 seeking better opportunities for her daughter, who just graduated from Castle High School and is headed off to college.
“You still have people who say, ‘It’s never gonna be the way it used to be,’” said Fields. “You know what my response is? The world’s never gonna be the way it used to be. This is a new village. I’m not trying to get it back to the way it once was. This is a new, diverse village. Let’s embrace it and move forward.”
The Yahoos’ efforts have won some support. They received a Covid-19 emergency support grant from Neighborhood Connections to create the Garden of Life, a grassroots gathering place where people can celebrate life and remember those who have passed away. A group of volunteers painted old tires bright colors to create flowerbeds that resemble teacups, and also installed benches where people can rest. Over the summer, they hung out masks that people could take for free.
Chris Alvarado, executive director of Slavic Village Development (SVD), the nonprofit serving the area, says residents like Compton and Fields are helping the neighborhood slowly recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Both Fields and Compton participate in SVD’s Community Stewards program, which trains and pays residents to build community and conduct outreach.
“It’s the real desire of everyday citizens to help their neighbors,” he said. “The community stewards program is a cornerstone of what we do.”
Fields and Compton hope to eventually open a community resource center on Fleet Avenue to help people in need navigate assistance programs. “They call us the Thelma and Louise of the neighborhood, because sometimes we take on more than we can handle,” Fields jokes.
Yet although they knew they face a daunting task, with each passing month, they say, more people are joining the Community Yahoos in their efforts to help people in need and improve the neighborhood.
“A lot of people are not willing to take that leap,” said Compton. “A lot of people are stuck where they are. When they see us do it, they want to become a part of it. Don’t sit at home and say, ‘I don’t know, my neighborhood’s going down.’ It has to start somewhere.”
For more information about Slavic Village, contact SVD at 216/429-1182 or visit www.slavicvillage.org.
This article is being published as part of Ask The Land: True Stories of Slavic Village, a program organized by The Land with students from Kent State University who are finalists in the Reynolds Journalism Institute student innovation competition. For more info, click here. Lee Chilcote is editor and founder of The Land.