Motivated by the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests, some of Chicago’s most prominent athletes took a bus tour of the South Austin neighborhood in early June. They found a food desert — one grocery store and 10 liquor stores. They made a promise before they stepped off the bus. A half-million dollars and less than 11 weeks later, they delivered.
Led by former Bears linebacker Sam Acho, who first recruited them for the bus tour, the athletes purchased Belmonte Cut Rate Liquor at 423 N. Laramie Ave., next door to the By the Hand Club for Kids. They knocked down the building and on Wednesday replaced it with a pop-up grocery store, Austin Harvest, run by kids from the club’s after-school program. “It started with that vision,” Acho said. “We just had the vision of using all our sadness and our anger and channeling it into the right direction.”
Others had tried to buy the liquor store before to help make the neighborhood safer from customers who lingered outside and engaged in “tomfoolery,” as Acho put it. But the owner refused to budge until the coronavirus pandemic and looting changed his mind.
It cost $500,000 to buy the building, raze it and replace it with a temporary structure. Donations from $1,000 to $100,000 came from a who’s who of local athletes: the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews and Malcolm Subban; the Bears’ Mitch Trubisky, Charles Leno, Isaiah Irving and Sherrick McManis; the Bulls’ Ryan Arcidiacono and Max Strus; the White Sox’ Lucas Giolito; the Cubs’ Jason Heyward and Jason Kipnis; the Sky’s Diamond DeShields; Northwestern alums Austin Carr and Tyler Lancaster; Jets center Jimmy Murray, a Loyola Academy graduate; and former Bears Chase Daniel (now with the Lions) and Israel Idonije. Even Cardinals star Paul Goldschmidt donated. So did Bears general manager Ryan Pace.
“I think it’s important, just getting a bunch of athletes together, especially in the Chicago area, to come together for a positive cause,” Trubisky said. “And it’s not just doing stuff on social media — it’s actually getting together with the community to try to make a positive difference. And this is something we felt is very important: to get down into one of the neighborhoods that needed help. They weren’t getting any groceries, let alone fresh food. . . . Hopefully it’s a trickle effect throughout the city that we can get going.”
Giolito said last month he hopes to do more of the same across Chicago — and beyond. “This is, like, the model going forward we can apply to a lot of communities around Chicago,” he said. “And even expand across the United States.”
A nine-year NFL veteran who played for the Bears from 2015 to 2018 and the Buccaneers last year, Acho is still working out in hopes of landing on a team this season. As a vice president of the NFL Players Association, he has been encouraged by protocols the union helped negotiate to prevent coronavirus outbreaks and play a full season. “Originally, I thought there’d be no way they’d be able to pull it off,” Acho said. “But now, for the first time I believe the season can happen, and it can happen safely.”
Whether he plays or not, Acho never stays stagnant. He has been active in community work since joining his parents on a medical mission to Nigeria at age 15. He wrote a book, “Let the World See You,” that comes out Oct. 13.
And his work isn’t done with the grocery store. It will be open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 3 to 6 p.m. — but only for 12 weeks. By then, he hopes to find a way to have a more permanent structure on the property. “The pop-up thing is temporary,” he said. “When it gets cold, we’ve got to figure something out.”