When Elvira Ford's husband went back to prison in Florida, she was invited by "non-biological family" to stay with them in Troy, New York. Troy, a town of about 50,000 near Albany, has a strong system of community supports, such as food and housing assistance, which Elvira and her new baby needed.
Elvira's husband, Jerry, was released later that year and joined his family in Troy for a fresh start. "I started selling drugs when I was about 16, and I was good at it. I made lots of money," Jerry says. "But when I came to Troy, I didn't want to return to that lifestyle. I was always a smart kid who just made mistakes. Here it was that I had an opportunity to use my God-given blessings, and the more I applied myself, the more I saw opportunity."
Elvira and Jerry rented their own apartment, started building community relationships and joined United Ordained Church. Jerry, now a deacon at the church, says the congregation "loved on us unconditionally from the start." As the Fords looked
Elvira and Jerry Ford Illustration/Audrey Chan
around their new community, they noticed that many Black and Brown youth lacked activities and resources to keep them off the streets, so they volunteered with the local Little League. Jerry was a coach, and Elvira started a cheerleading team.
But keeping kids off the street for the length of a baseball game was not enough for the Fords, so they partnered with a local café to create activities to engage youth every Friday night, sometimes as many as 20 or 30 teens. People saw their social media posts and reached out to get involved.
That led to "pillow talk" about how to go even bigger, Elvira says. They eventually launched a 501c3 called Team H.E.R.O.
, which stands for "Helping Everyone Recognize Opportunities." Team H.E.R.O.'s flagship initiative is the Block Center, a mentorship program at the Boys & Girls Club that provides after-school meals and activities, but Elvira says the program is "mainly about building rapport with families so they trust us and know that we're genuine." Team H.E.R.O. also organizes a basketball program and a summer course called Project HYPE ("Helping Youth Pursue Excellence") that teaches skills such as digital media and musical engineering.
The Fords' all-in, around-the-clock dedication to serving young people has earned them the 2021-2022 NeighborWorks America Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership
. But it also earns Jerry and Elvira – now the parents of three – the opportunity to serve not just the youth but their families, too. "We help parents get jobs," Jerry says. "When they get evicted, we help them move. We help with substance abuse issues. It's about the whole family."
Their roles propelled them to a new level of leadership in the summer of 2020, during local Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd and again later that year when 11-year-old Ayshawn Davis was killed in a drive-by shooting in Troy. Jerry is widely recognized as helping keep peace in the city during those times because he intervened to diffuse tensions between teens and police. Team H.E.R.O. also provided grief counseling services.
One of Team H.E.R.O.'s biggest community supporters is the Troy Rehabilitation and Improvement Program (TRIP)
, a NeighborWorks America network organization and a service the Fords know very well. The Fords turned to the TRIP and RCHR NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center when they were ready to buy the apartment they had been renting. "We came with no knowledge of the homebuying process," Jerry says. "It was overwhelming in the beginning. But the staff brought things down to our level and helped us along the way."
The Fords later purchased the full multifamily building, which is often a gathering place for youth in the community. "Deacon Jerry and his wife Elvira's home matters to the whole community," says Christine Nealon, the president and CEO of TRIP. "The home they purchased, as customers of the TRIP & RCHR NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center, serves as more than a foundation for their own family; it is a connecting point for the entire community."
Jerry has been active in the NeighborWorks America Community Leadership Initiative. He, Elvira and some of their youth participated in a CLI virtual program on financial literacy. That session launched the idea for their next project, an "all in one" community center, which will be home to sports, youth programs, mental health services, workforce development initiatives, a food pantry, and more. The project is in the planning stages and has commitments from the city of Troy to support it. "The community center will let us bring all the activities together," Elvira says. "It will be the place to be."
Jerry and Elvira are always open about the ups and downs of their personal journeys, especially as they promote personal resilience, a Team H.E.R.O. core value—a lesson they teach and learn. "When we get tired, we think about how we are making an impact and the difference we see in the end," Elvira says. "That keeps us going."
Site tags: Resident leadership, training, creative community development