Tucked behind the Stratosphere near Sahara Avenue and Interstate 15 lies the Naked City, an area notorious for gangs, drugs and poverty.
According to Las Vegas police, officers typically received about 300 calls from the area each month.
But in August 2009, Chris and Laura Chapel set out to create a beacon of hope that represented a light at the end of the tunnel.
Or, rather, a house of light.
Casa de Luz, 2412 Tam Drive, serves as the neighborhood’s only church and community center. However, the building suffered major structural damage the past few years, including a leaky roof that left 40 percent of the building uninhabitable.
“We had bad plumbing, outdated wiring, you name it,” said Chris Chapel, president of Casa de Luz. “Even the foundation was bad because tree roots were making the tiles crown.”
The church was also on the verge of eviction despite paying rent every month because the landlord defaulted.
Enter Julie Murray, CEO of Moonridge Group Philanthropy Advisors.
Murray connected with the Chapels, whom she met while running Three Square food bank and organized a group of philanthropic friends to restore the fragile church.
“I knew from the moment I saw them that this would be the project people would want to work on,” Murray said. “They do so much for the community. It was really meaningful.”
Trinity Schlottman, owner of Trinity Haven Development, served as the general contractor and started the renovation in May.
“We basically gutted everything. It was down to the studs,” he said. “We originally were just going to remodel the one room, but the project kept growing from the initial scope.”
In order to prove the church was worth investing in, the Chapels shared crime statistics a Las Vegas police officer provided.
“Since we moved in four years ago, the narcotics rate dropped 81 percent, violent crimes 64 percent, homicides 50 percent and property crimes 40 percent,” Chapel said.
Donors from all over the city came to the rescue. Diana Bennett, CEO of Paragon Gaming, donated $10,000. Musicians Carlos Santana and his wife, Cindy Blackman, donated $65,000. Nick Mamula, president of T. Nicholas Company, purchased the building back from the bank and deeded it to the Chapels.
“It was infectious. It spread through layers of friends until it felt like the whole community was embracing philanthropy,” Murray said. “It was magic.”
According to Chapel, people were constantly dropping off food, supplies, money or sharing expertise.
“My brother was running around to different supply houses to meet with people who would charge $500 worth of supplies to their credit cards,” Schlottman said. “It was pretty awesome.”
In just four months, the church received a new floor plan, foundation, roof, food pantry, kitchen, computer station, youth classroom, bathrooms, living quarter and more.
The project cost about $400,000.
“Some people define Las Vegas as a transient city. They say it’s not a community,” Chapel said. “I think that myth is being debunked with these types of projects. We couldn’t be more blessed.”
The church doubles as a community center, child haven and food pantry, according to Chapel.
“This church is everything,” he said. “We’re the heartbeat of the community.”
Chapel and his wife serve as parental figures for the “Casa kids” who frequently visit the church. They check the children’s grades, help them when they’re sick and give them a place to play off the streets.
“It’s so scary to go to sleep at night and feel like there’s no hope and nobody cares about you,” Murray said. “This place is a refuge for them.”
Chapel said Michael Rodriguez, 14, recently approached him and said he and his siblings didn’t feel comfortable being at home because of family issues.
“He asked if they could come and hang out with me and my wife at our house,” Chapel said. “So we took them in and taught them how to bake lasagna and brownies.”
Rodriguez said he comes to the church every week to hang out after school.
“They treat you like you’re their child,” he said. “They help you with whatever you need.”
Fasil Abraha, 12, said he’s been coming to the church for about four years. Before that, he spent his time playing around the neighborhood streets.
“I come here to learn about God,” he said. “I like (the remodeling) because it has more room for us. It’s safe here.”
The children even have their own personal security guard: Chapel’s wife Laura.
“She is fierce and a force to be reckoned with,” Murray said. “Gangs respect her.”
According to Chapel, Laura received a call one day that one of the church’s 14-year-old girls was attacked by gang members in a women’s bathroom. Fortunately, she was rescued before any harm was done.
“My wife isn’t a big person, but she marched right up to the main gang member and told him our kids are off limits,” Chapel said. “He said a whole lot of ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and that was that.”
Casa de Luz also runs a food pantry every Tuesday through Friday that hands out about 5,000 pounds of food to about 1,800 people each month. Chapel said he’s expecting to increase the support by 75 percent with the new renovations.
“We found that people were coming here to get food to sell out on the streets for drug money,” he said. “So with the help of Three Square, we now have a digital system that logs and monitors who we give food to.”
According to Chapel, the amount of food given to each person depends on their need, the size of the family and the occasion.
“A lot of the people we help are on food stamps,” he said. “So we typically will hand out more food at the end of the month after they used all the stamps up.”
The church also networks with other organizations such as Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, the city of Las Vegas and HELP of Southern Nevada to provide additional resources, including bus passes, housing, counseling and more.
“Our services are not just welfare handouts,” Chapel said. “It’s truly investing in people and seeing them transform.”
Despite the renovations, the church’s physical structure cannot change anyone’s life, according to Chapel. However, it does show stability.
“It says, ‘We’re here, and we’re not going anywhere,’ ” he said. “There’s more to Vegas than just a 7-mile road. You just have to look in the right places.”
Contact Southwest/Spring Valley View reporter Caitlyn Belcher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0403.