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Ideas stir up support in Roanoke at first Big Lick SOUP event

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Jerel Rhodes wants to take a group of middle and high school black men to visit colleges and important historical sites in Atlanta. The problem: He needs the money.

That’s where more than 150 people attending Big Lick SOUP (Supporting Outstanding Urban Projects) at 16 West Marketplace in downtown Roanoke came in. His group, Renaissance Academy, and presenters for three other groups stood before the audience and made a case for why they should win money to support their project.

“There are young people that need you and need me,” he said.

Guests were encouraged to pay $10 for soup, bread and desserts donated from local restaurants, and sit at tables and listen to project proposals. Then they voted, and the idea they deemed most deserving of their soup dollars won.

After taking first place, Rhodes, surrounded by his boys in jackets and ties, said he was speechless. The academy is run on donations and money from his own pocket, so winning $1,840.60 would go far for the men whom Rhodes hopes will all go to college one day.

“The thing I try to drive home to these guys is that it’s all about the community,” he said. “If we’re going to change the culture of the community, this is how we’re going to do it.”

Dining on soup while voting tickets were counted, Kathy Reed said she was impressed with all of the presentations, but she leaned toward the Renaissance Academy.

“Anything that can get a young man dressed up in a jacket on a Thursday night deserves your vote,” she said.

The four organizations each had four minutes to present their project, and then they could take four questions.

Blue Ridge Literacy wanted to establish a micro-residency for a Hollins University MFA student to work with six area immigrants on exploring the community through creative writing.

Noke Codes wanted funding for a 24- or 48-hour hackathon in August that would improve the community’s technology infrastructure in some way while also growing and improving the area’s civic-minded technologists.

REACH, or Real Experiences Affecting CHange, hoped to secure funding to host a block party in the Belmont neighborhood in southeast Roanoke in the organization’s ongoing effort to improve that area. Tim Dayton, executive director, asked audience members to close their eyes and imagine the sound of a band and children laughing and the smell of hot dogs on the grill — a little hard to do with the smell of soup permeating the room.

When it came time for soup and deliberations, Ryan LaFountain was still torn. All of the presenters were so passionate and their ideas so strong.

“This is all about building bridges in Roanoke,” he said.

The concept for Thursday night’s event emerged in 2010 out of Detroit’s civic and economic decay. According to Detroit SOUP’s website, as of January 2014, the events have raised more than $55,000 to support community projects.

The idea for the soup events spread to other cities, and Brad Stephens, who organized Thursday’s event, thought Roanoke could benefit from it as well.

No one actually runs Big Lick SOUP, because any person can organize one. Stephens said last August he and a few community leaders began to solicit project proposals, and they eventually whittled down the final presenters from 16.

“We were very intentional about pulling from different areas of the community to have diverse groups that can have an impact,” Stephens said.

Organizers, audience members and presenters said the biggest benefit from the event was the community bonds. Guests learned about organizations they’d never heard of. Presenters made connections with other community leaders they’d never crossed paths with.

“The biggest thing you get tonight is not the money,” Dayton said. “It’s getting a group of people together who care about the community.”

While REACH wasn’t able to win the money, Dayton said the block party will still happen. The group had already considered doing a SOUP event when it was tossing around the block party idea last summer.

Stephens said he’s already planning on organizing another Big Lick SOUP in October.

Amy McGinnis, another organizer of the soup event, considered Thursday night’s event an overwhelming success with the number of attendees, considering the recent weather conditions.

“The thing I love about this is that it connects people to the project,” she said.

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