Leaving – and returning – to the Far Eastside Neighborhood in Indianapolis was one of the best decisions Derris Ross ever made. He left the violent, poverty-stricken neighborhood to attend college at the University of Evansville. When he returned and saw the neighborhood unchanged, he knew it was time to act.
Ross’ transformation of the Far Eastside began when he partnered with Minister Lenerd McKinney and the Community Alliance of the Far Eastside (CAFE) to create The Far Eastside Development Program, helping at-risk men overcome barriers. “There’s gun violence, domestic violence and murder happening, and we know what the root problems is. We focus on mental health, education, livable wages and giving them opportunities to be successful,” Ross explained.
Violence wasn’t the only Far Eastside issue Ross tackled. While delivering food to the homeless on the Far Westside with the Mozell Sanders Foundation, he realized his neighborhood lacked similar resources. The next year, Ross began the No Family Will Starve Thanksgiving Program. “I personally purchased $1,000 in turkeys and fed over 400 families; once I started I couldn’t stop,” he shared. He went on to launch Making Every Kid Smile Christmas Toy Give Away and the 5,000 Eggs Easter Egg Hunt.
These programs, all in their third year, are now part of The Ross Foundation, Ross’ nonprofit focused on improving the city's Far Eastside through youth programming, economic development and community engagement.
Preventing violence is on the top of his foundation’s list of issues to address. “When people talk about gun violence, they forget that 80% of the gun violence committed is while people are on a substance. We don’t have programs in schools to educate on that anymore,” he stated. “That’s why we are creating a program to tackle not just mental health but drugs, alcohol and trauma.”
Last year, his foundation organized two #OURYOUTHMATTERS Peace Marches and won a $12,000 grant from the Central Indiana Community Foundation for crime prevention programming. “What motivates me to help the community is losing 30 friends to murder. I put in my head if at least one of my actions, programs, or transparent conversations saves at least one life, it was definitely worth it.”
For those wanting to get involved and start making change in their own community, Ross says to “just do it, because once you do it there is no stopping or turning back.”