When Albert Evans started going door to door, handing out flyers about Saturday's Aetna Community Day, he got some inquisitive looks.
What's the catch? How much money do you want? Are you running for office?
"People were a little hesitant," Evans said. "Most people just go to work and mind their own business. We're doing it because we want to do something different, that'll be beneficial for everybody. People have done great things without politicking, when it was time to vote. We want to set a different tone, let kids know that good can come from this community."
There's no catch. The former Portage and Purdue football standout isn't asking for cash. As for politics, well, maybe down the road, who knows? He just wants to extend a helping hand to the Gary home where he still hangs his hat.
"I literally woke up one day and (thought), the community needs something," Evans said. "I live out here, I run around, I see how it used to be, the school, when I was younger, compared to now. Since (Aetna Elementary) closed, there's nothing to bring people together. I called my mom (Loukecia). She helps the church with its back-to-school event, and she said she'd multi-task both."
Evans hatched the idea in late July. By the end of that week, the flyers were done and the whole plan was laid out. Starting at noon Saturday, a block party will be held on 14th Place and Arizona Street in Gary, where the Evans family has lived since 1995.
"It's home," Evans said. "It starts at home. I'm from here. I have a passion for where I'm from. I don't expect anybody else to come in to Aetna and care about what's going on here. I wouldn't be who I am at all without this community, the people around here. It takes a village to raise a child. I had neighbors keeping an eye on me when I was younger. I see kids. I want to give people some hope, show them we're right here with you."
Upwards of 200 kids will receive a backpack of school supplies. Larger items, including an autographed Kawann Short mini football helmet, will be raffled over the course of the afternoon. Plenty of food and drinks will be available. There will be music with a live DJ and games. The Evans family took on most of the expense, with donations picked up here and there.
"My mom and (Gary mayor) Karen (Freeman) Wilson go way back," Evans said. "I got checks from a couple Purdue fans who heard about it. When it first started, it was just picking up things at back to school sales. We just put our heads together, tapped into our resources, who we knew, what we could do. We're not the richest, we're not the poorest. We just want to share some of what we have."
Some of that positive energy seems to have caught on as well. Neighbors have done weeding and cleanup at the shuttered school.
"We're hoping it gets a chain reaction started, that it'll motivate other communities to do things," Evans said. "People sat they always wanted to do something like this, but never did it. People have pride, time invested in their communities. People who aren't from here don't know Gary is a bunch of different neighborhoods, with different races, different ethnicities. That diversity still lives in these neighborhoods."
An assistant football coach at Homewood-Flossmoor, Evans is involved in youth development, working with at-risk kids. He's finishing up his requirements to earn his Master's degree in December. He's a great example for young people who may think they can't make something of themselves based on their background.
"People remind me, doing what I did, what I'm doing, is a big deal," Evans said. "Even I took it for granted. I did have the support at home. I was fortunate. My family's been there every step of the way. The biggest thing with the kids who live here is showing them there is no right way, no wrong way. There are different paths. I want to show them, hey, I'm right there with you. We're all in this together."
The event is to celebrate Aetna, but is open to anybody who wants to come by, grab a bite, pull up a lawn chair and shoot the breeze.
"We're going to be hanging out all day," Evans said. "It's nothing too extravagant, but it should be nice. We're excited for it."