"Love your neighbor as yourself.”
For Lucas Rouggly, this oft-heard commandment is a complete way of life. He and his wife made the decision to move their family to north St. Louis to truly understand the needs of the northern part of the city and be able to help those around them.
“When we made the leap [to move from Portland, Oregon], we had a lot of friends and family that were excited for us and wanted to help out, too,” Rouggly says.
Thus, LOVEtheLOU was born. The nonprofit was formed to take the pulse of the needs of city neighbors and how the needs can be met through loving relationships. In its early days, Rouggly, his family and friends hosted block parties and street festivals in the municipality’s Old North St. Louis neighborhood. These activities proved to be an easy way to combine people wanting to serve and people wanting to celebrate. After they turned a vacant lot into a garden, though, “everything just snowballed.” They started their work in 2010 and received their status as a nonprofit organization in 2014.
“Over the past three or so years, we’ve had more than 1,000 volunteers come and help out [in the gardens],” Rouggly says.
With growing support from volunteers and partners, the community development initiative has expanded significantly in more ways than one.
After being given a building two years ago, volunteers of LOVEtheLOU rehabilitated 10 apartments in the space, which are being rented out to north St. Louis residents at the lowest prices in their area of the city. There are four business spaces in the building, as well, creating a marketplace for local entrepreneurs.
In addition to the physical strides LOVEtheLOU has been making in north St. Louis, the group has been consistently working to form relationships with the people who live there. In 2015, the group started a mentorship program with teens specifically, called STL | LIFT. It brought on two youth directors to work with the teens of North City, employing the teens over the summer to work in the three community gardens while showing them new opportunities outside of the area they reside.
“We took 26 [teens] this summer, and they did absolutely phenomenal,” Rouggly says. “It’s a testament to a little bit of love.”
Each week, the LOVEtheLOU team takes the teens on an “empowered experience” after their work in the community gardens to expose the students to different career paths and opportunities. LOVEtheLOU also partners with businesses to do everything from horseback riding to showing students how to get their driver licenses to doing financial planning and budgeting – important, and sometimes fun, life lessons they might otherwise not learn.
Rouggly says it’s often surprising how quickly the teens change when given opportunities and a little bit of love. Rouggly described one student as “completely out of line” the first time they took him out to a camp; however, by the end of the summer, “he was a completely different kid.”
“His whole demeanor changed,” Rouggly says. “He was asking question after question. The only thing that was different was that he had people surrounding him, giving him opportunities and love.”
Realistically, Rouggly knows the LOVEtheLOU team won’t reach all the kids in St. Louis. But each year, they hope to grow their mentorship program.
“The goal is to take every one of the kids and give them 100 different experiences they wouldn’t receive otherwise,” he says. “In doing that, we’re expecting a high percentage of them to be completely transformed. This isn’t just tutoring or a program after school; it’s a holistic approach to every part of life. That’s where we find our niche. We want to really walk with these kids and allow our huge volunteer base to walk with them, as well.”
LOVEtheLOU’s projects also include facets called STL | LINK, which will partner LOVEtheLOU with businesses and other nonprofits to work together on common goals, and STL | LIVE, which is the nonprofit’s biggest initiative for 2018. STL | LIVE will work with outside groups like area churches in St. Louis County and plug them into fixing up abandoned houses. Once the homes are rehabilitated, Rouggly and his crew have identified individuals in the area who will be selected for home ownership.
“They won’t be renting – they’ll actually be owning these homes,” Rouggly says. “It’ll be a process of taking vacancies, fixing them up and handing them over to people who are well-deserving.”
For the long-term future, Rouggly and his team want to “give as much away as possible.” With a solid volunteer base, LOVEtheLOU will be working to find city residents who can benefit from groups coming in and being in their neighborhoods.
“We help give people a vision of what can be,” he says. “We don’t have to be a flyover city in peoples’ minds. There’s so much good here. It’s going to take organizations like LOVEtheLOU to highlight the good and point it out. The word ‘love’ for us isn’t cliché – it’s backed with action.”
LOVEtheLOU, 2801 N. Kingshighway Blvd., St. Louis, lovethelou.com