How this group of ‘everyday residents’ utilizes a DIY spirit to transform their Douglass community

Sometimes, when a problem presents itself, the best solution is to roll up your sleeves and get to work. For residents in long-underserved communities — like those cleaning up the North Memphis community of Douglass — self-reliance can often seem the only solution.

Kathy Temple, executive director of The Time is Now Douglass Redevelopment Corp. (Photo: Facebook)“We’re just residents. We’re trying to make it easier for everyday residents, like us, just to make their communities more successful. We did this for years with money from our pockets,” says Kathy Temple, executive director of The Time is Now Douglass Redevelopment Corp.

Founded 20 years ago by Temple and childhood friend, Robert Perry, the nonprofit now employs a team of 10 workers to address blight.  At first, it was just Temple and Perry who maintained forlorn lots, boarded up windows, and hauled off junk.  

“There are so many blighted properties and vacant lots. Most owned by either private families, investors — or even the city of Memphis — that are not being taken care of by those entities…We started doing it ourselves because we have to live here.”

It’s not an uncommon problem. Blight is peppered throughout many neighborhoods in Memphis’ booming and gentrifying housing market. Absentee ownership, and abandonment or neglect due to age or impairment, for example, contribute. However, the issue is more acute in communities like Douglass, which suffer higher rates of poverty, drug addiction, crime — and a lack of money to address them.

Nevertheless, after years of unsung toil, the efforts did gain notice. In 2020, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, District 7, secured $25,000 for the organization through the commission’s community investment fund. 

“That was the first significant funding we received,” Temple says. “They gave us $25,000 to start the blight crew. Right when the pandemic started. We were able to…(and) even at such a terrible time…start our blight crew and partner with Midsouth Food Bank to start our mobile food pantries, to bring food to a community that is already a food desert. Even in the midst of a pandemic we were able to feed our community.”

An anonymous donor soon matched the sum. Flush with $50,000, a decision was made to form The Time is Now Douglass nonprofit organization.

“We did everything we could reluctantly to become a 501(c),” Temple says. “We never wanted to become a 501(c) because this started as ministry work for us. When you have a 501c and you get that money, you have to go by their rules and do what they say. Which really does not help our community.”

The Time is Now Douglass Community Development Corp. hosted a mobile food pantry in the Douglass neighborhood on April 16, 2020. It was the first mobile pantry held in Douglass since the novel coronavirus pandemic hit Shelby County. (File photo)
While tax-code responsibilities, proper channels, and less freedom of action can reduce the flow of progress, the tangible results have been greater than the drawbacks.

“We are seeing a decline in criminal activities. We have lit areas that were unlit. We have made vacant buildings secure by keeping windows and doors boarded up. We don’t have any overgrown lots in all of Douglass because we keep up with them. These are things that make our community strong and make our community safe.”

Among the blight patrol’s dedicated crew are addicts and recovering addicts. Many cope with their illnesses privately, due to a lack of treatment options in the area. 

“Our volunteers…are the backbone of everything we do…and (some of) these are people that are currently addicted. We want people to understand that these people are not throwaways. They are caring people, they are real people, they are loving people. They want to contribute also, but they need help. Anyone else with a disease, they need medical care,” says Temple.

In addition to reclaiming their community and providing a sense of purpose and source of pride for it’s members, another ambition for the nonprofit is better access to food. In addition to the food pantries, more permanent sources are currently taking root.

“We’ve been able to imagine a few greenspaces. We’ve installed one orchard. We’re installing a second. Gardens will feed for two or three seasons, but orchards will feed for two or three generations.”

Read more articles by Jim Coleman.

Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.