Breaking Ground is located in Chicago’s west side neighborhood of North Lawndale. Lawndale is a close-knit community that has been hit hard by unemployment, crime, and poor educational opportunities.

A suburban man named Mark Ennis planted the first seed of Breaking Ground back in 1987. Each day he rode the commuter train through North Lawndale on his way to his engineering job downtown. Looking out his train’s window he pondered the poverty he saw and decided he wanted to do something about it. He purchased a dilapidated six-flat in Chicago’s impoverished neighborhood of North Lawndale and began its restoration process. At first he hired four high school kids and soon the whole neighborhood was involved.

Two years later Art Mitchell joined Mark in his efforts and they moved into the newly-rehabbed building. Additional volunteers soon joined the efforts and in 1990 an after-school mentoring program was launched. In 1991 the Homework Club was added, providing after-school academic tutoring.

Others joined in the effort and the cause gained momentum. Breaking Ground received its 501(c)(3) status and incorporated as a not-for-profit in 1992 (at that time under the name Upward Bound).

Two volunteers, Val Jordan and Jeff Dennis, joined the team with the goal of using entrepreneurial businesses to employ local residents. In 1996 the City of Chicago donated a 10,000 square foot abandoned factory building to Breaking Ground to house an injection plastic molding company, APL Plastics.

Although APL Plastics did not turn out as a viable business, the experience gained by employing men and women from Lawndale revealed the need for an employment-readiness program. In 1998 the APL Teaching Factory (APL) was founded as a school for preparing men and women for entry-level manufacturing positions. The school was designed to prepare students for the work force by helping them raise their reading and math levels and become accustomed to showing up on time every day. News of the program spread throughout the neighborhood and soon APL had a steady stream of men and women from the neighborhood coming through its doors.

One problem that many impoverished inner-city neighborhoods face is gentrification. Gentrification is the economic eviction of low-income residents as their neighborhood develops. Economic development brings with it increased taxes, rent, and home prices. These “increases” make it impractical for long-time residents to remain in their neighborhood. In order to combat gentrification and create employment opportunities, Breaking Ground took part in a new-home construction project with the City of Chicago in 2003. This program made it possible for existing residents, the majority of whom rent, the opportunity to own their own home, and at the same time provide construction employment opportunities. 10 single-family homes were constructed over the span of two years. These quality homes were valued at over $200,000, but could be purchased for as low as $90,000 with subsidy. Breaking Ground’s track record in the affordable home market persuaded Chicago’s West Side chapter of Habitat for Humanity to choose them as the recipient of over $500,000 in assets when they closed their doors in 2004.

In an effort to create additional employment opportunities Breaking Ground purchased a FISH Window Washing franchise late in 2004. FISH employed APL graduates by washing business and commercial windows across Chicagoland.

In 2006 a neighborhood beautification business called Cleanstreet was added to Breaking Ground. Cleanstreet was previously owned by Breakthrough Urban Ministries, but it was given to Breaking Ground to advance it’s potential beyond what Breakthrough had capacity for. Employing around a dozen APL graduates, Cleanstreet provides primarily litter removal, landscaping, snow removal, and power washing services to business districts in the City of Chicago.

From 2005 to 2009 Breaking Ground constructed 67 homes consisting of 88 units. This $14.5 million development provided affordable home ownership opportunities for local residents and employment for over 25 APL graduates in the following trades: project management, landscaping, iron and chain-link fence, trim carpentry, rough carpentry, and insulation. View a map of Breaking Ground’s 77 new homes.

Breaking Ground brought manufacturing training in-house in 2009 with their Manufacturing Training Center (MTC). MTC is an industry-driven program offering education, job training, and direct links to employment. MTC students participate in a 16-week machinist class taught by a former college instructor with 10 years teaching experience and 30 years in the industry. Studies include blueprint reading, milling machines, lathes, and computer numerical control (CNC) operation. Graduates receive a nationally-recognized National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS) certification.

Breaking Ground was chosen in 2009 as an official developer and general contractor for the federally-funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP). NSP exists to help revitalize neighborhoods hit hard by foreclosures by purchasing vacant foreclosed homes in need of repair, injecting the needed funds to rehab them, and then sell them at market rate. Breaking Ground acts as a developer and general contractor in this program and performs many trades with our own crews staffed with APL graduates. Breaking Ground, so far, has been rewarded a $1.6 million, five home, rehabilitation project in the NSP.

Read more about NSP here.

In 2010 Breaking Ground was rewarded a $2.28 million, federally funded, Green-Jobs Initiative Deconstruction program by the City of Chicago. This deconstruction program creates employment and on-the-job training for 35 APL students per year in the recycling and re-use industry. Deconstruction participants receive classroom and in-the-field training in recycling, salvaging, re-using building materials, and construction safety. This program is now in its second year.

Read more about this program on the City of Chicago’s website.

Breaking Ground’s mission is to seek and develop those who desire to become instruments of lasting change in their community. Breaking Ground works to fulfill this mission by creating educational and employment opportunities. Since 1998 Breaking Ground has seen over 2,400 students come through its doors and has created a wide variety of employment opportunities to develop its graduates.

Other instances of Breaking Ground in the news:

Manufacturing Training Center featured in the Chicago Tribune.

Recipient of a 2009 Chicago Tribune McCormick Foundation Fund Grant.

Breaking Ground featured in the Steans Family Foundation annuals: 2006 and 2004.

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