In the late 1960s, public housing complex East Lake Meadows was getting ready to open its doors. After becoming one of the first residents, Eva Davis helped form the Tenants’ Association to advocate for community improvements.
As Davis’ granddaughter Shannon Longino describes it, back then Eva was the unofficial mayor of the Meadows. Unfortunately, as years passed, East Lake Meadows became overrun with drugs and crime, and became known as one of the worst zip codes in America.
Fast forward two decades and Tom Cousins purchased the East Lake Golf Club, which had fallen into its own disrepair. He began restorations in 1993, but it wasn’t just the club that caught Tom’s interest. He saw the need for real change in East Lake, but required assistance from residents to make it happen.
With Davis leading the way to get the community on board, Cousins was able to put a plan in place to transform East Lake Meadows. Longino sat on the planning board alongside her grandmother and helped initiate change.
“It became exciting because we were going to be a part of this transformation that changed the area, that changed the state, that changed the city and it changed the nation because you can go and replicate this in other parts of the country,” Longino said. “Everybody has communities where people want the opportunity, but they don’t know how to get the opportunity. Sometimes people just need the guidance and the resources.”
Resources were exactly what Cousins brought to the area, and in 1995 he formed the East Lake Foundation to support a number of programs aimed at revitalizing the community – starting with adequate housing. That’s when the concept for The Villages came about. Now instead of crime-ridden public housing, there are mixed-income units that offer safe and well-maintained apartments to diverse families.
“He [Tom Cousins] was sincere in wanting to change things,” said Longino. “It didn’t matter that he came from a different world. He was a common person with a great heart who wanted to see better for people.”
Today, living in The Villages gives families first priority to other programs under the East Lake Foundation umbrella that improve quality of life – from Drew Charter School and early learning program admission to The First Tee of East Lake golf instruction, community gardening beds and college readiness support.
In 2011, the Resident and Community Support Program (RCSP) was introduced to develop a sense of community while providing resources to help residents thrive. RCSP programs are focused on economic stability and community engagement and include career development, financial literacy and community-building events.
“People can live anywhere. It’s a quality of life people are looking for,” remarked Longino. “Places or people like the Foundation help get that going. But, there’s ongoing things. We want to be able to continue the tradition helping families build, helping generations build. That’s what the Foundation does.”