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Labor of Love: Drew Lewis Foundation hits goals with renovation project, ag grant

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A public gathering set for Feb. 8 will serve as a celebration of a newly renovated school building that’s now home to nonprofits and community services. It’s also the culmination of a yearslong passion project by owner Amy Blansit.

Built in 1906, The Fairbanks has been in a four-year renovation phase at its three-building campus, Blansit said. She and her late husband Drew Lewis bought the 1126 N. Broadway Ave. property in 2013. It’s been an investment of $1.5 million to date. The foundation also received a matching grant from the state in January to build an on-site facility to address food insecurity.

The project has a deep meaning for Blansit, as Lewis died from cancer the same year the couple began salvage work for the building that was vacant since 2005. She started the Drew Lewis Foundation Inc., which supports families in poverty, in his honor.

“For what we’ve achieved despite it needing major funds from the beginning, it is a lot, even though it’s been seven years,” she said of the nonprofit’s path.

The renovation of the converted elementary school’s main building involved remediation work, as lead and asbestos were removed thanks to a $200,000 brownfields grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The project also has opened up a gymnasium and commercial kitchen in an adjacent building, along with converting former classrooms into a day care.

The Drew Lewis Foundation is one of five nonprofits that have been operating in roughly 3,000 square feet of co-working space in The Fairbanks’ library building during the renovations.

Blansit said her nonprofit just gained occupancy of its new office space Jan. 22 – part of 15,000 square feet renovated – joining tenants Springfield Community Gardens, Redeemer Church, Missouri Mentoring Partnership and Life360 Community Services. The renovations also opened up space for a community living room, classrooms for youth and adult education, and a conference room. Additionally, Springfield Brewing Co., which has been using the library’s reading nook as a bike shop, can expand to 800 square feet, she said.

“We’ve all been crammed in. This will give us some growing room,” Blansit said. “It’s really vital having this access to a community space on the north side.”

At The Fairbanks, Blansit is board chair and founder of the Drew Lewis Foundation, where she helps lead The Northwest Project, an initiative that assists residents living in poverty in northwest Springfield. The project works with families on health, budgeting and affordable housing needs.

The Northwest Project, launched in May 2016, is funded through by a five-year, $1.3 million grant via the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, the Stanley and Elaine Ball Foundation and the Musgrave Foundation. Additional funding beyond 2021 is being sought. It’s part of nearly $2.5 million in funding assistance received by the Drew Lewis Foundation over the past four years for construction, programming and housing in the Grant Beach neighborhood, Blansit said.

“We’ve developed very quickly and gone from an idea and a community hub concept into a fairly large nonprofit that is seeing some really good progress and results in our work,” she said.

The renovation project isn’t the only recent accomplishment for the foundation.

Grant gain
As the year began, the nonprofit was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Agriculture that will be utilized to construct a shed to wash and pack produce grown at The Fairbanks. Blansit said the shed will improve storage of produce and reduce waste, adding it also would provide educational opportunities.

The foundation partnered on the project with Springfield Community Gardens, which will match the $25,000 grant, she said. 

“The biggest thing is the time it saves, the better practices it creates and being able to have a really good system in place,” she said, estimating it should cost less than $50,000. 

But the new storage will at least double Springfield Community Gardens’ food production to 6,000 pounds of food a year, she said. The organization sells some of its produce at the farmers market on Commercial Street, in addition to supplying meals served at The Fairbanks. Adam Millsap and Melissa Young-Millsap, owners of Urban Roots Farm LLC, are consultants on the 360-square-foot project, Blansit said. Construction is slated for completion by May.

The nonprofit was among a dozen statewide recipients of grants that came from one-time legislative funding of $200,000, said Christi Miller, manager of the state Department of Agriculture’s Missouri Grown Program. Funding is through the Food Desert Agriculture Matching Grant Program. It funds projects that address food insecurity within food deserts in rural and urban areas. 

“We’re not certain what will come of this year’s session,” Miller said of any additional grant funds for fiscal 2021. “But anything shows success if it addresses food insecurity.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 37 million Americans live in food deserts. In urban areas, individuals are considered to be living in a food desert if they must travel more than a mile to buy affordable, healthy food. In rural areas, a food desert is identified if access is 10 miles away.

Price Cutter at 712 W. Commercial St. is the only grocery store within a mile of The Fairbanks, Blansit said.

“Food deserts really have to do with transportation,” Blansit said. “If I don’t have transportation and I have to walk, then can I walk a mile for sure? Once I have my groceries, how many groceries can I carry back in one mile?”

Collaborative spirit
The partnership with Springfield Community Gardens is one of many at The Fairbanks. The Northwest Project is a collaboration of the Drew Lewis Foundation and Drury and Missouri State universities, and the facility also receives diapers from Diaper Bank of the Ozarks and hygiene kits from Convoy of Hope. The Northwest Project serves around 75 people weekly, with between 30-40 children attending Life360’s day care, Blansit said.

Community dinners are a weekly Thursday night offering at The Fairbanks, she said, during which the Springfield-Greene County Library District brings its bookmobile.

Allison Eckhardt, the library’s outreach services manager, said the district began the collaboration a year ago.

“They are so welcoming of library programming,” Eckhardt said. “We’re always looking to provide library services to those who may have a barrier.”

The library district’s annual summer reading program also has been a mainstay at The Fairbanks, among dozens of other locations, she said. The library just received a $10,000 grant from the Library Services and Technology Act to continue the program this summer.

Blansit said the Feb. 8 grand opening event at The Fairbanks will be an emotional day. It’ll represent seven years of work.

“When I bought the school, everyone thought it should have been torn down. They thought I was crazy. The best form of flattery is to be duplicated,” she said, pointing to Community Partnership of the Ozarks’ O’Reilly Center of Hope – another community-centered project under development in a former Springfield school.

“We just showed people it was possible,” she added. “It’s been awesome to see Springfield evolve into this.”

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