Matthew J. Rice greeted customers eagerly behind a foldable table festooned with what he calls novelty nuts — small mementos he makes by hand from small slabs of wood and found objects like walnuts and plastic toys.
The 8-year-old entrepreneur sold his wares and handed out his business cards during the Westside Health Authority’s Octoberfest last Saturday, held in the parking lot of the organization’s Wellness Center at 4800 W. Chicago Ave.
Rice has sold more than $250 worth of the novelty nuts, said his great-grandmother LaAndrea Turner, 71, a prison evangelist and a co-founder, along with her daughter Yvette McKinnie, of Life Changing Community Outreach.
Rice, who his great-grandmother said counts an FBI agent and a teacher among his clientele, is part of Life Changing’s young entrepreneurs program.
“My motto for novelty nuts is, ‘If they’re crazy about it, we can make it,'” said Rice, who lives on the West Side and attends CICS West Belden, a charter school in Belmont-Cragin.
Rice and his great-grandmother are the embodiment of the Westside Health Authority’s Good Neighbors Campaign, a collaboration between clergy and local stakeholders eager to reduce violence and increase economic development opportunities for the West Side.
The campaign officially launched during an Oct. 25 press conference outside of the shuttered Emmitt Elementary School, 5500 W. Madison St. The conference was attended by 100 people, including Morris Reed, CEO of the West Side Health Authority.
“We must connect with one another and build better communities one block at a time,” said Reed. “It is important that we support this effort to build a better community and to make living on the West Side great.”
One longtime Austin resident and social activist, Lillian Drummond, 95, spoke at the press conference and told the crowd that even though she was running late for work she wanted to make an appeal to help youths find employment.
“I have been living in Austin for over 50 years and I am 95 years-old. I am concerned about the disinvestment in our community,” said Drummond. “But I have faith that together we can make a difference especially for our young people.”
According to Alderman Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes portions of Austin, so far Chicago has recorded 436 shootings and 68 homicides in Austin. She attributed many youth involved shootings to social media.
“You’d be surprised to read what’s being posted on Facebook by our children. All these kids have Facebook and the parents don’t even know it,” explained Mitts. “A lot of kids don’t have parents that are ‘parents’ but parents that are ‘friends.’ You have to be mommy and daddy first before you can be their friend.”
Jacqueline Reed, WHA’s founder, said the Good Neighbors Campaign is her organization’s response to citizen feedback.
“The people say we need more jobs, more social opportunities, good things in the parks and better education opportunities for our young people,” Reed said. “They’ve said we need to be good neighbors to each other. The mayor wants to pay mentors, but that’s time limited. When you’re on your block, you are a mentor. TO have a paid program is one thing, but to have people on the block invested in their communities — that’s laying down the infrastructure for society.”
Turner said she hopes to utilize the Good Neighbors Campaign to develop a youth flea market for young people in the community, a hope aligned with Jacqueline Reed’s vision to partner with churches to provide jobs for young people and to change the landscape of the West Side — by purchasing one vacant property at a time.
“We can talk about putting down the guns and stop the shooting and pray and march, but that’s not the answer,” Turner said. “The answer is to get involved. We all need to help show our children what they’ve got in themselves.”
The Good Neighbor group plans to meet 6:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at 5437 W. Division St. and all local residents are encouraged to attend.
Michael Romain contributed to this report.