And Higgins, 75, fit that bill.
After being raised in Alabama, married at 18 and moved by her then-husband to Cleveland at 19, she came to Dayton in 1973 – ‘I had family here,’ she said – when the marriage has been dissolved.
She moved into her home nearly 37 years ago, worked on the assembly line at NCR and later Kodak, and raised her three daughters.
“The neighborhood was beautiful when I came here,” she said. “They were all old people. I was almost the youngest on the street.
“But the neighborhood isn’t what it used to be. The Baileys across the way are dead. Miss Williams is gone too, and Miss Wright too.
When I sat down with Higgins at her dining room table on Friday afternoon, she suddenly got up and opened the front door.
“Look at that!” she said, pointing to the large two-story house where the Baileys once lived.
The house was now abandoned. The windows on the first floor were boarded up, but those upstairs were all smashed. The porch was choked with an overgrowth of bushes and weeds.
There was debris everywhere, especially around the corner of the lot where someone – other people on the street later told me it was someone from the neighborhood – was regularly throwing bags of rubbish, many of them were now gutted.
While it was a constant eyesore, it didn’t add up to another sign of neighborhood decline for her. One defined by constant heartache.
On August 3, 2019, her grandson, Craig Cortner III – once a track star at Belmont High – died of multiple gunshots in an apartment on South Euclid Street, not far from the intersection with Weaver.
“It’s still not resolved, that’s what we’re going through now,” she said as her eyes filled with tears. “He was 29 when it happened. He was my youngest daughter’s son and now she can’t live in his place. She lives with my eldest daughter. It really hurts our family.
Although there have been other successes – she just attended a grandson’s graduation from the US Air Force in San Antonio and another grandson was a star in Chaminade-Julienne High – there were also other injuries.
Two of Cortner’s relatives – both teenagers – were also shot and killed in 2019. Firstly, Jonte Tinsley had been a standout football player at Meadowdale High and was on the Dominican University team in Ohio .
And then eight months later, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the region, Higgins was hit with a debilitating case of the virus.
It took her a long time to recover and today she says she still gets tired quickly:
“I like to keep my house in place and I used to go through this house ‘Bam! Boom! Bam!’ clean and repair what needed to be repaired. But now it really knocks me out.
And that’s why Saturday was so important.
The UD football team and a few extra volunteers were giving his house a makeover. They were going to put up a privacy fence, paint the interior, put in all new closet doors, an exhaust hood over the stove, and a ceiling fan. They were fixing electrical outlets, adding lights outside, putting up a flower bed, and even cleaning up the abandoned property across the street.
“I just can’t believe this is happening,” Higgins said shortly after a few dozen Flyers players walked onto his property. “That’s wonderful.”
Rebuilding Dayton Together
The Flyers connected to the Rebuild Together Dayton effort 15 years ago thanks to the organization’s CEO, Amy Radachi, and Marty Coates, a former UD football player, owner of Coates Custom Homes and who had joined the Rebuilding Dayton Board of Directors.
When he heard the group needed as many volunteers as possible, he thought of the Flyers football team and especially Chamberlin, who had just taken over as head coach after 28 years as an assistant.
Although he was once an All-American linebacker for the Flyers, Chamberlin’s true star quality came not when he tackled people, but when he lifted them.
Through his church – Northside Wesleyan on Neff Road – he has long been involved in missionary work in Africa and Mexico, as well as myriad good Samaritan deeds here at home.
He said he wanted his players to realize that there are people in this community who don’t have all the luck they have, and he wanted them to learn how to give back to others who could use ugly.
Over the years, his crews have tackled all sorts of rehabilitation and cleanup tasks across the city.
On Saturday, they were part of a group of 450 volunteers who worked on five homes and in parks, gardens and streets in the Madden Hills and Edgemont neighborhoods of West Dayton.
“Good for the mind, good for the soul”
Tom Luckett, a building inspector from the town of Kettering who also works with the Montgomery County Land Bank, was one of the volunteers working alongside the Flyers.
“I think it’s good for them,” he said. “It may seem like a different planet if you’ve never seen it. “
Dylan DeMaison, a nearly 300-pound center for the LaSalle High Flyers in Cincinnati — understood what Luckett meant when he and teammate Joe Gits were cleaning up mounds of trash behind the abandoned house across the street
That’s when they came across several used syringes.
“It’s a bit wild,” he admitted. “I’ve never really seen anything like this before. It’s quite revealing.
Gits agreed, but said it felt good to clean up the blight so Hazel Higgins didn’t have to watch it day in and day out: “It’s very cool when you can really help people.”
Grand Rapids wide receiver Luke Brenner said a day like this was good for everyone:
“It’s good for the mind. It’s good for the soul and it’s nice to be part of the community you live in.”
Watching the players work, Coates saw the same kind of community bond he saw at each of those National Reconstruction Days. And it carried a lesson that would serve us all the other 364 days of the year:
“There are all different races, creeds and backgrounds, and everyone is coming together for a common goal.”
No one was more moved than Hazel Higgins:
“My friends in Alabama tell me, ‘When are you coming home?’ And I tell them, ‘This is my home. I love Dayton. My family is here and I get a lot of support here. ‘
“And now this. I can’t believe anyone would do all of this for anyone else. It’s like a dream come true. I want to stay at home, but I can’t afford to do everything. And now someone is doing it for me.
“It’s hard to explain what this really means to me.”