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Course of the Community: Inside East Lake's Nationally Acclaimed Model for Neighborhood Revitalization

By:  Jay Moye Sep 17, 2013
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The world’s top 30 golfers will tee off this week at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola, the PGA's season finale. On Sunday afternoon, one player will take home the coveted trophy at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club, along with a special bonus prize courtesy of the title sponsor: a vintage Coca-Cola vending machine.

But he won’t be the weekend’s only winner.

The once-struggling, but now-thriving, East Lake community has been the tournament’s primary beneficiary since it was first held at the historic course in 1998. The annual event has funneled more than $15 million to the East Lake Foundation, to date.

Back in 1995, East Lake was home to one of the country’s roughest housing projects, with a crime rate 18 times the national average. Since then, the foundation has worked with residents and public and private partners to break the cycle of poverty through a focus on “cradle-to-college” education, safe and affordable housing, and community wellness resources.

And their work is paying off. Crime is down 95 percent, employment rates are up, and graduation rates and test scores continue to climb.

The “new” East Lake is anchored by a mixed-income apartment community where half of the 500-plus units are rented at market rate and half rent to families who qualify for public housing subsidies; the Charles R. Drew Charter School, which serves more than 1,300 students from pre-K through 9th grade; the East Lake Family YMCA and two early learning centers. The foundation also offers career development and financial literacy programs, a community garden and workshops, and other resources.

Thanks to the work of the foundation, what was once one of America's most violent zip codes is now home to the city’s first charter school and is seen as a national model for community revitalization. Tom Cousins, the Atlanta developer and philanthropist whose vision spurred the transformation of East Lake, believes that a holistic approach to community redevelopment can multiply inspiration and progress.

In 2009, Cousins created the Purpose Built Communities nonprofit to replicate East Lake’s rebirth across the country. Cities with neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, including New Orleans, Indianapolis and Charlotte, have turned to the organization for guidance.

East Lake’s integrated approach works because it’s “based on the knowledge that it takes much more than replacing dilapidated housing with high-quality residences to transform a neighborhood and break the cycle of poverty,” says Danny Shoy, Jr., the East Lake Foundation’s chief operating officer.

Worst to First

When it opened in 2000, Drew’s state test scores ranked dead last among Atlanta’s 69 elementary schools. Today, it sits atop the city’s public schools measured in Georgia’s Career and College Ready Performance index. Drew grads have been accepted at more than 90 colleges and earned more than $1 million in scholarships.

The school’s success is built on a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) curriculum, a strong foundation in literacy, and enrichment and before/after-school programs that stress academic achievement and character development.

In July, the Charles R. Drew Charter School Senior Academy welcomed its inaugural freshman class – representing what Shoy calls the foundation’s greatest success, to date, by “closing the loop on our dream of offering East Lake children a 'cradle-to-college' education.”

The work of the foundation extends from the classroom to the fairway. The nine-hole, public Charlie Yates Golf Course is home to the First Tee of East Lake, a golf and life skills program for kids ages five through 17. The program uses the game's core principles – discipline, hard work and integrity – to build academic achievement and confidence through clinics, after-school classes, year-round Saturday programs and seminars. First Tee golfers serve as standard bearers and course reporters during the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola, and one lucky player hits the ceremonial tee shot to kick off the tournament each year.

Kyler Hart, 16, has been involved in the program since he was an elementary student at Drew Charter School. He now caddies at East Lake and competes in the Atlanta Junior Golf program. First Tee’s core values “have kept me out of plenty of trouble, because they make me think before doing something,” he says.

A Community Effort

According to Shoy, corporate partners like Coca-Cola have been integral to the East Lake Foundation’s success since day one.

“In addition to providing dollars to fund our programming, partners offer important hands-on volunteer hours and, in many cases, have teamed with us to develop the strong education, wellness and economic stability programs we offer,” he adds. “This, in turn, strengthens the entire Atlanta community.”  

Sharon Byers, Coke’s senior vice president of sports, entertainment and community partnerships, calls the East Lake Foundation’s success “one of those classic American stories that shows what’s possible when private and public partners come together.”

Coca-Cola has always stressed the importance of building sustainable communities,” she adds. “And with East Lake located just a few miles from our global headquarters, we knew we needed to get involved.”

This includes volunteering both at the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola and with several East Lake Foundation programs. Every month, a dedicated group of employees from Coke’s human resources department travels to Drew Charter School to read aloud to students.

“It’s rewarding and humbling to see the students so engaged, and to play a small role in their growth,” said Meri Cotney, who manages the volunteer program at Coke. “The kids just love it and are so much fun – they ask all sorts of questions and want to get to know us and hear about Coca-Cola.”


The 2013 TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola raised a record $2.3 million for local charities. Since 1997, the tournament has generated more than $22 million for charity.