In the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, there are 17 liquor stores but only two grocery stores in a half-mile radius.
After the death of George Floyd—an unarmed Black man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer May 25—protests degenerated into vandalism and looting, forcing the two grocery stores to close.
That's when Sam Acho decided to act. The former Bears linebacker organized a group of pro athletes who combined to raise $500,000 to buy a liquor store and convert it into a grocery store.
On Tuesday, Acho hosted an event at the site. Several of the donors attended, as well as luminaries such as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown. The Bears were represented by general manager Ryan Pace, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, left tackle Charles Leno Jr. and former defensive lineman Israel Idonije.
Also on hand were members of the "By the Hand Club for Kids," an after-school program whose mission is "helping children who live in under-resourced neighborhoods have an abundant life." The organization was founded in 2001 with 16 children and has grown to now serve nearly 1,600 kids. The By the Hand Club will operate the new grocery store.
The event was billed as a "liquor store demolition party." After meeting in "peace circles," the group used sledgehammers to begin the demolition and shopped at a simulated pop-up market.
"The reason that we all came is because of the kids," Acho said at Tuesday's gathering. "When you talk about us coming together, it's not by accident. It's because there are people who are committed to change."
The idea to buy a liquor store and transform it into a grocery store was hatched more than a month ago.
"I was on a Zoom call with some of the donors," Acho said at Tuesday's event. "We were in tears because we were looking at what happened in the city of Chicago. We saw a situation that was already bad turn dire. Protesting was happening, but now there was looting and rioting and the two grocery stores that were in the community in a half-mile radius, now they're closed. So the whole thought was, 'What if we build something?'"
Goodell thanked Acho for inviting him to the event and lauded the project as "so extraordinary."
"Change is hard sometimes," said the NFL commissioner. "But change is a lot easier when people come together and they force change, and we create opportunities and hope for our kids. And that's what's happening here."
Mayor Lightfoot discussed the importance of supporting communities like the Austin neighborhood. She mentioned the violence that has gripped the city. Police reported that there were 87 people shot, including 17 fatally, over the Fourth of July Weekend alone. Several of the victims were kids, including a 7-year-old girl who was killed while visiting her grandmother's house.
"This has been a tough couple of weeks for us here in the city, not only because of the violence numbers but because of the number of children that we've lost," Mayor Lightfoot said.
"It's got to feel personal. It's got to feel personal if we lose our children because we're losing talent. We're losing God-given potential. We've had too many funerals. Mothers, fathers, grandparents and whole communities are grieving because we haven't shown up in the way that we need to for our kids. And that's particularly true on the West Side.
"Why I'm excited about this event, of course, is all the folks who are here, but also because these young people have taken the initiative to fill a need in the community. I spend a lot of time talking about how we need to show up for the West Side; that we need to be here.
"We need to eliminate the food deserts, the pharmacy deserts and other things. But most importantly what we need to do as adults is be the role models in the ecosystem that wraps our arms around our young people and tells them every single day of their lives by what we do, by how we show up and how we support them that we love them."
Other pro athletes who attended Tuesday's event included Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks), Malcolm Subban (Blackhawks), Lucas Giolito (White Sox), Max Strus (Bulls), Austin Carr (New Orleans Saints), Tyler Lancaster (Green Bay Packers), Jimmy Murray (New York Jets) and Matt Kaskey (Carolina Panthers). Carr and Lancaster attended Northwestern, while Murray and Kaskey are Chicago area natives who went to high school at Loyola Academy and New Trier, respectively.
Those who donated funds to the project included Acho, Trubisky, Leno, Idonije, former Bears Chase Daniel and Nick Kwiatkoski, Toews, Giolito, Subban, Strus, Carr, Jason Heyward (Cubs), Jason Kipnis (Cubs), Ryan Arcidiacono (Bulls) and Paul Goldschmidt (St. Louis Cardinals).