By Alex Whittler
Quilen and Hannah Blackwell offer a place of refuge to children in an area that often makes headlines for its gun violence and crime rates.
“The Chicago Eco House is an anti-violence strategy and nonprofit that’s focused on using sustainable technologies to invest in the community,” Quilen Blackwell said while a group of kids ate s’mores in his backyard in Englewood, which ranks as the tenth most dangerous Chicago neighborhood.
Those statistics have deterred potential homebuyers in the past, but that’s exactly what drew the Blackwells to Englewood.
With a large tarp welcoming students into their home hanging from a black iron fence, the young married couple said they proudly live and serve through their nonprofit on South Peoria. The Blackwells said they don’t hesitate to offer their home to anyone in the community who needs a haven– especially the nearly 30 kids who are likely to stop by on their way home from school.
The Eco House is a getaway for students at any institution. Aja McClanahan homeschools her daughters and she has taken them to the Eco House at least twice a week for a year.
“This [The Eco House] is a big help to get us out of the house,” McClanahan said. “There’s a lot of social interaction, and I do like the idea of them being able to hang out with kids from the neighborhood and knowing their neighbors. This is a great supplement to their home school studies and much of it is science oriented.”
The children’s needs and activities vary, the Blackwells said.
“Sometimes the kids haven’t eaten because their families are struggling to make ends meet,” Hannah Blackwell said. “So we offer them food on their way home from school considering some may have gone the whole day without anything. We teach interested kids piano once a week. And we do arts and crafts, we get eggs from the chickens.”
The Eco House has a solar panel, a chicken coup, a basketball court and a 3D printer, all with the hopes of teaching local students the importance of science, technology, engineering and math careers, or STEM.
“We hope that it gives them more of an opportunity,” Blackwell’s wife said while clearing off the pile of jump ropes from the large slab of concrete. “Many kids in this neighborhood get involved with gangs or drugs, but we figure if we welcome the kids into our home at an early age, they’ll feel loved and less likely to turn to those organizations.”
The Blackwells don’t have kids yet, but they said they’re planning to expand their family. They said they will stay in the same house and open their doors to anyone who’s knocking, even though they will have their own kids to look after.
“When we do have kids, we hope they’ll understand how important it is to love one another and welcome people into our homes,” Hannah Blackwell said.
The couple also said they hope to continue to grow the Eco House to other neighborhoods through their affiliate program.
“We encourage others to start Eco Houses in their neighborhoods,” Quilen Blackwell said. “We don’t know everything that’s happening in every block, in every high crime area, but a lot of what we’re doing is working and if it can work for someone else– we’re more than happy to help and share.”