Last month, former Bears linebacker Sam Acho hosted an event to celebrate a liquor store's demolition on the west side of Chicago. On Wednesday, he hosted a soft opening of the grocery store built in its place.
Acho called the day "a celebration of hope coming to life," as the Austin neighborhood, considered a food desert, added a source of fresh produce: Austin Harvest at 423 N Laramie.
"The most exciting part for me has been seeing groups of people from all walks of life come together to do something positive in a community that needs it," said Acho.
Acho, a central figure in the formation of the Bears Social Justice Committee in 2018, helped spearhead the project with "By the Hand Club for Kids," an after-school program that serves nearly 1,600 children. A conversation with Donnita Travis, the organization's Executive Director, inspired him.
"I'm a very emotional person," said Acho. "So when I went to the west side of Chicago, after feeling the anger, not only the killing of George Floyd but the protests and rioting that ensued, just all this emotional anger, I wanted to direct it somewhere."
Travis told Acho to listen to the kids about their needs. Soon after, the idea for the grocery store was hatched. Acho enlisted several former teammates to finance the plan, including quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and left tackle Charles Leno Jr.
"I think it's going to make a big difference in that community," said Trubisky, "and that's something that we wanted to do, and hopefully, it's a trickle effect throughout the city that we can get going. But we just want to make that positive impact, come together and make a difference in the city."
The Austin neighborhood is home to nearly 100,000 residents, making it the second-most populous of Chicago's 77 community areas.
The way the community rallied around the effort moved Acho. He cited people in surrounding areas reaching out, offering aid in several ways.
"Everyone is bringing their resources," said Acho, "almost like in the old Bible times when people didn't have a lot. You lived in these communities; you just bring what you have. People had food; they would cook. People had money; they'd bring their money. People knew how to make pots and plates; they would do that."
Acho found that it was easy to get people involved once the effort was underway, quoting one of his favorite Bible verses, Romans 8:31, "If the Lord is with us, who can be against us?"
"I've seen pro athletes come and purchase this liquor store," said Acho. "I've seen kids from that community take the lead, go and take classes for food certification to go and be able to manage a grocery store. I've seen people from all around the community come together and partner with the kids and say, 'hey, whatever you need, we're here to help.'"
Acho emphasized the plight of food deserts like Austin, where many residents have had to travel outside city limits to do their grocery shopping.
"Imagine living in the Sahara," said Acho. "You need water, and all of a sudden this oasis comes up, and there's a fountain that comes. The Austin neighborhood is a food desert, whether by design or by happenstance."
Acho found the experience comforting, reinforcing the best aspects of human nature.
"What this experience has taught me is that everyone is ready," said Acho. "People are ready."