TACK­LING THIS PROB­LEM AS A TEAM

EX-BEAR ACHO AND A CAST OF CHICAGO SPORTS NAMES HAVE SCORED BIG WITH A NEW GRO­CERY SO­LU­TION ON THE WEST SIDE

Chicago Sun-Times - - BEARS BEAT - BY PATRICK FINLEY | pfin­ley@sun­times.com | @patrick­fin­ley

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.” ✶

CHICAGO BEARS

For­mer Bears line­backer Sam Acho poses with mem­bers of By the Hand Club for Kids at the open­ing of a pop-up fresh food mart Wed­nes­day in South Austin. Nu­mer­ous sports stars chipped in to fund the project.

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