Meet the Founder & Creators of Struggle of Love. See what passion drove them to become such strong advocates for the community.
Struggle of Love: Serving the Community with Commitment and Authenticity Joel and LaKeshia Hodge share leadership and oversight of Denver-based Struggle of Love Foundation, a nonprofit that provides opportunities for underprivileged youth and families to access year-round basic services and programs. With diverse offerings such as competitive sports teams, school supply and toy drives, and an annual community picnic, Struggle of Love works with other local nonprofits to reach underserved communities in the Denver metro area. The Hodges draw from their own personal experiences with homelessness to identify services that are most needed in the community. They focus programs on Denver schools whose student populations come from low-income neighborhoods. In a conversation with Colors of Influence, the Hodges discuss the intersection of their lived experiences with their compassionate and sincere approach to providing support and assistance to families who need it most. What is the creation story of the Struggle of Love Foundation? JH: A friend of mine had a cousin, a young lady who had moved out here from Milwaukie. She was crossing Colorado and Colfax with her nine-year-old daughter, when the little girl got hit by a drunk driver. As we gathered at the house, mourning her loss, we came up with ideas about how to help the community in times of great need. During that conversation, it became a passion of mine to get into community, give back, and help people who are in difficult situations. I came up with the name “Struggle of Love” because everybody struggles for the love of something. People may struggle because they’re in love with drugs, or they’re in love with money. It’s a struggle to have these things that you’re in love with. In the African-American community, there’s a major struggle with loving ourselves. Love is lacking in our world, and we are all struggling with love. During that time, my wife and LaKeshia had just me each other. We were both homeless: she was living in a shelter and I was staying with friends. I was going to the library to research and study how to set up a nonprofit. Through the Struggle of Love Foundation, we wanted to create and offer services that helped us during our time being homeless. LaKeshia took all the research and paperwork and brought everything together so we can file for a 501c3 status and start offering services to the community. But the creation of Struggle of Love goes deeper than that. It’s created from what LaKeshia went through as a child, what I went through as a child, and the way our families were structured. Our past experiences, the things we witnessed, and things that we don’t want our children to experience: these are all part of the Struggle of Love’s creation story. What are the key community needs that are served by the Foundation? LH: We support the community in a variety of different ways. Through our outreach events, we help families, individuals, and youth. Our “Reach 4 Peace” picnic held every June is a free community event that brings the community together for one day of family fun. Everyone is welcome to the free event that includes free food, face painting, bounce houses, pony rides, haircuts, and more. We also recognize three outstanding men with the “Father of the Year” award. Fathers are hardly ever recognized, so we take that opportunity to show that someone sees their contributions and appreciates what they do for their families and the community. JH: We take a lot of pride in Reach 4 Peace. We just hosted the 10th annual event on Father’s Day. Denver City Mayor Michael Hancock delivered a proclamation recognizing our work. We had several nonprofit booths so community members can find out about their offerings. These organizations are out here, willing to help. With the “Father of the Year” awards, we want to show our youth that there are men – fathers – who are on a positive path. Young people can look up to these men as mentors and as role models in the community. Many of our programs help underprivileged children in Denver schools. We have a year-round sports and mentoring program, which is designed for underprivileged youth from families that could not afford to join competitive sports. We provide an outlet for troubled youth or those involved in gangs, to make sure that we uplift them. We want to make sure they are not left out and left behind. We offer an outlet for them to stay off the streets and out of trouble. LH: With our school programs, we typically serve schools where 80% of children receive free or reduced price lunch. Usually, the school is in a low-income neighborhood. We try to touch every neighborhood, every community. Most people don’t know that 3,500 children in Denver Public Schools are homeless. At our recent annual backpack giveaway, we had more than 300 backpacks full of school supplies for children who need them. We also host an annual hot Thanksgiving dinner for children and families who are homeless. We also pick a school to “adopt” for our toy drive every holiday season. What programs are offered by Struggle of Love that are not offered anywhere else? JH: Our sports and mentoring program is one of the first to offer a “player-parent” contract. We ask the kids a certain grade point average, and abide by rules and regulations so they can participate with us. For two years, we offer travel, uniforms, coaching, and training – everything needed in competitive sports. Our goal is to continue to offer this program free for all kids who want to play with us, as long as their grades and attendance are good, behaving at home, staying away from gang violence and drugs. But we know that life gets expensive, and sometimes families have to cut corners. Kids may want to be in a sports program, but parents can’t afford it. They have to make a decision between paying for the light bill, or the sports fees. An idle mind is the devil’s playground. Kids play sports in schools, but school is not year-round. Instead of being on the streets, you can come to our sports program. LH: We’re also able to offer kids in the sports program the opportunity to give back to their community. We have our kids giving out Thanksgiving baskets. Whatever we’re doing, we make sure that they’re involved, so they could see the importance of service. We collaborate with Friends First, which offers a 12-week mentorship experience. After completing the program, the kids have an opportunity to stay in a college dorm for three days to get that college experience. Sometimes it’s easier for the kids to relate to their coach, so our coaches serve as mentors too. We have parents who get involved What is your ultimate vision for Struggle of Love? LH: Ultimately, we want to open up a “Love Center:” free and open to the community with a variety of services. In our neighborhoods, we have recreation centers, but they are closed on the weekends or on holidays. The Love Center would be open almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week. JH: In the Love Center, we want to offer classes that have been left out of schools, like wood shop, home economics, etiquette, hand writing – all those things that they don’t teach anymore. Not all kids are going to be computer-savvy or technical, and they need hands-on skills. At the Love Center, everyone is welcome to receive love. No matter what you look like or what you’ve done in the past. Why did you decide to focus your energies in serving youth and families? JH: Here in Colorado, we don’t have segregate neighborhoods. We’re all struggling and we all need to help each other. We serve everybody in need. Depending on the location and the services offered, the largest population we serve may be Hispanics and Caucasians. We serve African-American youth in areas where they need most attention, for instance, family support and mental health. We serve underprivileged youth and families because we’ve been there. And we’re still there. We don’t get a salary to do this, and we both work two jobs. God sent us on this mission, and we want to make Him proud. He opened the doors for us to be able to do all that we’ve done. LH: Having been in the same shoes as the people we serve, we really can relate to what they’re going through. What do you find most challenging about leading the Struggle of Love? LH: Funding is always a challenge. It’s hard to take it out of our own pockets, but we make sacrifices and do what we can to make it work. Getting collaborations and partnerships in place can be a challenge, helping people understand what we stand for. JH: My main issue is that some people have a different perception of helping. To me, it’s hurtful when people approach us to help, but expect a reward. They expect to get something in return. It’s not from the heart. We want to collaborate with helpers who are sincere in helping the community. How does your cultural background impact the work you do for the community? JH: It’s hard to explain and understand these challenges unless you’ve walked in these shoes, and know what people are going through. I know that I never should have gotten involved in gangs and drugs. That was the atmosphere I was brought into, growing up in Chicago. LaKeshia was living a nice life until her father and mother split up. Overnight, her life changed. She had to stay in a motel room with her seven brothers and sisters because they lost their home. That’s traumatizing to a young child. Because we lived through these experiences, we understand the mental health problems that our youth is facing. We try to help them cope with issues of dealing with trauma and stress. By the example of our own lives, we let them know that they can achieve their goals and dreams. Even though they may come from these very difficult situations, there is a way out. LH: What Joel and I have lived through, we’ve walked in the same shoes as many families we’re serving. We can relate to their experiences. In our culture, being African-American, we’re brought up to believe that we’re the underdogs. We always have to work 10 times harder than the next person to prove our worth. We hope to encourage young people to believe in themselves and do the right thing. They can look at our past and what we’ve gone through. We’re still here, still living and thriving. There’s always a second chance. In doing this work, what gives you the most joy? JH: Looking back to when we started the sports program 10 years ago, the boys are now grown. We have four kids in college. All the girls on our teams are A students – every last one of them. Everyone is doing well! I appreciate that. It shows me that they take our stories and listen. LH: Families and children stop us at the grocery store or at the gas station to say hello and thanks. Kids in our sports teams keep in touch and keep us updated about what they’re doing. It’s so important to always have a positive outlook and be a role model. I appreciate the thanks we get from the community. This is what makes Struggle of Love worthwhile for us, why we keep going, despite the many sacrifices. We know that we are making a difference. Check out the Video!