Erica Middleton is hoping to shine a positive light on the Memphis neighborhood where she was born and raised.
Middleton's new nonprofit, Light Up South Memphis, is currently setting up shop in South Memphis with plans to make big changes, starting with the neighborhood youth.
Middleton grew up in the Memorial Garden public housing projects, attended Alton Elementary and Southside High School before attending college at the University of Memphis. But when she got to college, Middleton heard a calling she wasn't expecting.
"I found that I lacked a lot of knowledge that other students had," Middleton said. "It was then that I realized my upbringing and background were the reason I felt behind the curve when I got to college, and I knew I had to change that."
At the U of M, Middleton began to draw the blueprint for what would become Light Up South Memphis. Middleton and a few of her peers (including former NBA star and Memphis native Antonio Burks) began to map out ways to improve the neighborhood they loved.
"We wanted to start with the children, because they are the future of the neighborhood," Middleton said. "As the program expands, we will be reaching out to the entire community and offer classes for adults as well."
First, Light Up South Memphis plans to build a neighborhood improvement office on South McMillan between South Parkway and Person. Middleton said this location was chosen because more than 80 percent of the houses in that area are vacant and boarded.
Middleton said the office will be constructed by South Memphis youth and will serve as the headquarters for the organization. Once the office is open, Light Up South Memphis will hold events such as a community knowledge bowl, a web design and programming camp, an ACT prep camp, and a basketball camp run by Burks. They're also planning tours of the U of M's College of Engineering, and they're in the process of working with schools in the area for after-school and summer programs.
In addition to the programs for children, Light Up South Memphis will eventually offer services to adults. Classes on landscaping and investment banking as well as community cleanups are just a few of the things planned.
"In the past, neighborhood cleanup [areas] have been very broad, so people can't really tell a difference [when they're done]. With the help of local churches, we will target specific areas, and you will be able to see a change in the areas we target," Middleton said.
Middleton said she hopes Light Up South Memphis will help children look at the community differently.
"I want the children to love South Memphis and know it a different way than I know it. I want them to love it for the opportunity that it provides, not for the crime, the high teen pregnancy, or the teddy bear memorials," Middleton said. "I want them to know a community that is clean and nonviolent and a place that they will want to raise their kids one day."