On a street in Dover, Delaware, where drug deals once took place midday in plain view, students are now serving ice cream. Mint chocolate chip. Cookie dough. Confetti cotton candy. Kids request their flavors and sit with grandparents at The Scoop on Loockerman, a new shop that provides both dessert and community change.
"It's somewhere people can hang out and it feels safe,"says Kassem Cotton, one of the students who works there. "People come to the shop and sit down. It's pretty cool to see people get off from work and come have ice cream."
The shop is next door to what's known as The Service Hub, a place where Central Dover residents can connect to stabilizing services. When people come in for ice cream and express the need for something – food, help preparing for a job, a way to pay for utilities or pick up a Narcan kit – they're sent next door to The Hub where an engagement specialist is ready to help them.
The Scoop and Hub were created through a partnership between NeighborGood Partners and the state's Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN). NeighborWorks America granted NeighborGood $100,000 to use for the ice cream shop, part of a strategy known as comprehensive community development, an approach to creating places of opportunity for all. The Hub opened last fall; The Scoop began with a soft launch in May and opened officially in mid-July.
"Yes, you can use ice cream as a catalyst for community change!" says Elizabeth Druback-Celaya, director of Community Initiatives for NeighborWorks America. "Because of course it's not really just about the ice cream — it's about thinking creatively and working in partnership with residents to build the strategies that make sense for a place. NeighborGood Partners is making a difference that is creating opportunity for residents and strengthening the community as a whole."
Just two months in, the ice cream shop is earning about $350 a week. But the value, says Patricia Kelleher, community development director at NeighborGood Partners, is much higher. "We wanted to put in something that's an anchor and asset for the area,"she says. "It's a destination for the community on the end of town people don't usually go to."
Says Kimberlynn Reeves, public affairs specialist with the attorney general's office and a part of Delaware's PSN initiative: "Are we bringing in loads of money? No. But that's not our goal. Our goal is to impact the lives of the residents who live in Central Dover. We want to lead with hope and change."
NeighborGood's approach aligns strongly with NeighborWorks' comprehensive community development approach, says Druback-Celaya, "working block by block, spending time building relationships with residents, aligning partners and resources, and supporting resident goals with investment and structured support."
Part of this support includes employing youth who might otherwise be headed down a different path. At The Scoop, they learn about customer service, handling money, ordering supplies and taking responsibility. And they earn $15 an hour — above Delaware's minimum wage of $11.75, says Kelleher.
There are other pieces of the puzzle, too, in revitalizing this community. Four new houses, built in partnership between NeighborGood and Central Delaware's Habitat for Humanity, sit on what Kelleher says used to be "a drug corner."The homes back onto four houses built by Habitat, creating a stable, mixed income core in a neighborhood that is slowly becoming revitalized and reenergized. The two organizations identified the blocks to revitalize together, to maximize impact. The neighborhood plan, known as the Resorting Central Dover plan, is the result of careful thinking with input from community residents. Both agencies prioritized acquiring vacant lots and buildings – which is where illegal activities cropped up.
Ice cream and community
The idea for an ice cream shop started with Reeves, the public affairs specialist. She had seen an article on a restaurant in Dallas, Texas, meant to provide skills and focus for formerly incarcerated individuals, and thought a similar enterprise might work in Dover for youth facing challenges.
As part of PSN, peer engagement specialists were tasked with getting to know the community and build trust. After two years, "they grew to know a lot of residents in Dover in the hotspot areas."And the idea of establishing a social enterprise began to take shape.
Reeves says she isn't a chef, so she couldn't open a restaurant that taught workers to make five-star meals like the braised rabbit pasta they made in Dallas. "But we could sell ice cream,"she says. "Hotdogs and snacks, too."And they could provide workforce development and vocational training for youth.
"The ice cream shop supports teaching people soft skills, having them engage with community residents, social service providers, business leaders and politicians," Reeves says. "We're there to help the youth develop the skills they need to be successful and help the community revitalize from within. It's started creating buzz and the buzz is for the right reasons."
Reeves herself is at the shop five to six days a week, one moment scooping ice cream, the next helping someone just released from prison integrate back into society. "I'm finding that while people are getting ice cream, they're telling me about the issues they have. And I can say, ‘If you go next door, there's someone who can help you.'"Next door, of course, is The Hub, where NeighborGood Partners has employed two peer engagement specialists.
She recalls a young woman who came in last month and wanted to start her own cleaning business. Reeves referred her to NeighborGood Partner's Launcher program, and the woman came back to get advice on how to handle and prepare for her interview to be accepted into the program. Reeves was happy to oblige. "And I thought: This is working! It's innovative and proximate to the issues PSN seeks to address. That's what's making it a success."
Preparing youth for the future
When "Miss Kim"asked Cotton if he wanted a summer job at the ice cream shop, he said yes right away. "You see people's mood change when they get ice cream,"he shares.
Cotton had met Reeves years ago through his involvement in a mentorship program called The Green Beret Project, which connects youth from the city to afterschool programs, service projects and support. He works from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and says he likes seeing the people he knows from the neighborhood.
Skills he's picked up this summer? "Being responsible, knowing how to count change. And it's helped my people skills and my communication."Cotton was one of the special guests who spoke during The Scoop's official grand opening in July.
In August, he leaves his job for Williamson College of the Trades, where he'll be studying carpentry. But before that, there are more scoops of mint chocolate chip to dish out. "A lot of people in the neighborhood, they know me,"Cotton says. "They see how I'm changing my life."
Tyree Cain, who just turned 18 and will attend Goldey-Beacom College in the fall, says The Scoop is a 15-minute walk from his house. "It's a positive environment. It's very peaceful. Customers come in smiling. Nobody's angry."
He likes serving the kids best because they smile the most, he says.
His summer takeaways? "I like customer service, learning to use body language and picking up other workplace skills."
Working for community
NeighborGood Partners has been working in this Central Dover neighborhood for the past decade, since the Delaware Community CenDel Foundation approached the organization about leading a collaborative to apply for a planning grant from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, and then implementation funding. "Central Dover is a very distressed area,"says Kelleher. "The downtown has a commercial corridor that is not thriving."Their research showed that the predominantly Black neighborhood suffered from low levels of employment. "The homeownership rate was 25%, an indicator of a community in decline."
As NeighborGood Partners began to plan, they engaged community residents. "We asked what they wanted to see in their community and how they wanted it to change."Engagement like this is a core tenet of comprehensive community development, the name given to community work that focuses on the whole community and centers resident voices and involvement.
The organization received a second revitalization implementation grant in 2020. Part of the plan, which addresses violence and crime, included creating for-sale housing for first-time homebuyers.
So while plans were in the works for the ice cream shop on Loockerman, the organization was planning new homes on a street corner two blocks over. A few years ago, Kelleher says, "You would drive by and there would be drug deals going on right in front of you."NeighborGood purchased the corner lots but held onto them until other construction gave the neighborhood a safer feel. NeighborGood completed the four homes in March of 2023.
The block is "not all the way there yet,"Kelleher says. "But a block that used to be unstable has become stabilized."
Furthermore, adds Cpl. Lee Kellen, of the Dover Police Department's Community Policing Unit, homes in the neighborhood, particularly on Kirkwood Street, were vacant or in disrepair. "This bred an environment for illegal activity such as drug dealing, gang activity and violent crimes. All of these factors created an environment in which people were not motivated to take care of their homes or the area around them."
When NeighborGood Partners and Habitat for Humanity began buying the problem properties, things began to change, he says. "Both organizations constructed homes that new homeowners could be proud of. The pride that these owners have is evident in the manner in which they maintain their yards and homes."
If you drive on North Kirkwood Street today, he says, you see porch furniture on porches, flowers in freshly mulched beds and well-manicured homes. "The chain reaction from the construction of these homes goes deeper than many would think.Residents are more likely to report crimes to the police because they're motivated to keep their homes and neighborhood safe," he says. And that serves as a deterrent to criminals. Meanwhile, NeighborGood and Habitat have both helped the police with events, including the Hometown Holiday event in December and neighborhood watch organizations, furthering the partnership. There is still work left to do, he says, but the tireless efforts put in by the partnering organizations "have made Downtown Dover a much better place than it was years ago."
Comprehensive community development takes a long time, Kelleher says. But the goal is to create sustained change. "Often, affordable housing was built wherever the land was cheapest. There's an understanding now that housing needs to offer other amenities — access to schools and transportation. Neighborhoods need to be safe and have green spaces."
NeighborGood is working to incorporate these elements. Near the new homes, they are developing a park in partnership with the City of Dover on donated land. "Things are improving," Kelleher says. "That's for sure."