South City

Girls Inc. plans to add a massive center in former South Memphis school

Girls Inc. of Memphis plans to renovate part of Georgia Avenue Elementary, which has been shuttered since 2012. In the building, Girls Inc. will install a 30,000-square-foot center unlike anything else in its Mid-South footprint.

Streets Ministries, located directly across from the the 420 boarded-up units of Foote Homes, is closed for the summer.

Considering that the residents of the public housing development were relocated in advance of the property’s demolition, adjacent Streets Ministries decided to host its summer programming at its Graham Heights location. Kids from ZIP 38126 are bused in to participate in the nonprofit's first-ever summer camp. 

But outside the building at 430 Vance Avenue near Downtown Memphis, you can hear the pulses of Beyoncé’s music.

The Bold Futures program of Girls Inc. of Greater Memphis is occupying the Streets Ministries building for the summer. In the gymnasium, the 25 girls participating in the summer program are learning self-defense tactics to the beat of girl power songs.

“The Bold Futures program is an initiative to keep kids in school and keep them away from the juvenile system," said Sylvia Martinez, vice president of programs with Girls Inc. of Memphis.

"For us, that’s important here. It shows character and leadership through self-defense and community involvement."

Participants of the Bold Futures summer program strike a pose.

Before they borrowed space at Streets Ministries, Girls Inc. worked within nearby Booker T. Washington School in South Memphis.

But the youth organization is finished with hopping from one property to another in ZIP 38126.

By the end of 2018, it plans to renovate and move into a nearly 30,000-square-foot building on the shuttered campus of Georgia Avenue Elementary. It will be the largest Girls Inc. center in the Mid-South and a cornerstone of Girls Inc.’s local presence.

These newly-approved plans are part of the larger South City redevelopment, a neighborhood revitalization project backed by over $200 million of federal, local and private dollars.

“From our perspective, there are the the benefits of helping the girls and young women grow and develop, but it also a way for us to deal with this empty structure, of which we have so many,” said Archie Willis, founder and president of Comcap Partners.

Participants of the Bold Futures program practice self-defense led by Girls Inc.


Comcap is the lead private partner working with the City of Memphis Department of Housing and Community Development on the South City redevelopment. Willis said that in July, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved $500,000 to support project costs related to the Girls Inc. South City center.

The Memphis Housing Authority is working with Shelby County Schools to purchase the Georgia Avenue campus, though exact timelines and costs are yet to be determined, Willis said.
A view of Georgia Avenue Elementary, which closed in 2012.Girls Inc. will occupy just one building of the sprawling three-building school at 690 Mississippi Avenue, which closed in 2012.  Also in the neighborhood is Vance Middle School, which shuttered in 2014, and MLK Student Transition Academy, which has been closed since 2016. Willis said that redeveloping the MLK Student Transition Academy could be a possibility in the future.


“One of the deficiencies in the neighborhood is educational opportunities. So educational opportunities can go beyond the traditional classroom, and from our perspective, that's what Girls Inc. will provide,” Willis said.


Lisa Moore, president and CEO of Girls Inc. of Memphis, said that the organization will move into the building at Georgia Avenue Elementary that formerly housed the offices and cafeteria gathering space. The building faces Booker T. Washington School, where Girls Inc. hosted programming during the school year. 


That existing “cafetorium” will inform the next phase of Girls Inc.’s investment in Memphis. Moore envisions that the South City center will complement the existing Girls Inc. Youth Farm, which is a 9.5-acre plot in Frayser where girls learn urban gardening and social entrepreneurship.


To further utilize the produce grown at the Girls Inc. farm, the South City center would be a place where girls could cook and cater homegrown fare. Moore also imagines the 800-person capacity cafeteria as a place to bring the community together through neighborhood meetings, speaker series and demonstrations on healthy cooking.

Georgia Avenue Elementary sits boarded up at 690 Mississippi.


“We're not building a building to be a Taj Mahal to Girls Inc.,” Moore said. “We make strategic decisions about where we invest our dollars in those areas where girls of the highest need have the easiest access. It's important for us to locate in an area that could benefit from that development.”


Martinez said that a large-scale physical facility could be the anchor needed for a community in transition like South City.


At the heart of South City is Foote Homes, Memphis’ last standing public housing complex. Demolition is currently taking place on the property, which will be replaced with 712 units of mixed-income housing. The supporters of the program believe that investments in housing, residents and the surrounding neighborhood will uplift and stabilize Memphis’ most impoverished ZIP code.
Israelette, 12, lives within walking distance of the Girls Inc. camp housed at Streets Ministries.

Many of the girls participating in this summer’s Bold Futures program are from the neighborhood. Some, like 12-year-old Israelette, are newcomers. She’s lived in ZIP 38126 for a month, and she said the program has helped her make new friends and learn more about the neighborhood.


“We’ve learned how to respect others and how not to disrespect others,” Israelette said. “The (counselors) are cool. They’re amazing. They’re like a second mother to me.”


Martinez, who joined the Memphis team in April from Girls Inc. Los Angeles, said that a permanent Girls Inc. center of this size is “extraordinary”.


“For Memphis, having a pillar in the community, a safe haven within the community is important for the stability of the girls here,” she added.

“It will allow us to serve more girls than we have served at any of our sites, but we will also be a safe haven for our families. I think it’s daunting and it’s mindboggling, but it’s very exciting because it provides hope in that community where hope has been lacking.”

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Read more articles by Madeline Faber.

Madeline Faber is an editor and award-winning reporter. Her experience as a development reporter complements High Ground's mission to write about what's next for Memphis.