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A new way to help revive Casa de Luz

The tan, squat rectangle of cinder blocks and concrete doesn’t look like much.

But the building at 2412 Tam Drive, near Sahara Avenue and Industrial Road, is the pilot project of a different approach to helping local charities. It houses the rebuilt Casa de Luz, a church and resource center that provides food, mentoring and life-skills training to residents of the Naked City, a poverty-stricken, high-crime area in the shadow of the Strip.

Casa de Luz, perilously close to shutting down a year ago, celebrated its grand reopening Thursday, its future secure thanks to the coordinated effort of 20 benefactors.

“We have a first-class facility that we own now. We have an amazing kitchen, and we have classrooms for the first time. It’s an incredible blessing,” said Chris Chapel, a Casa de Luz co-founder and pastor.

It’s not just a new beginning for Casa de Luz. It’s a whole new way — locally, at least — of helping some of the city’s neediest groups. It’s called “collective impact,” and it unites individual donors in a single effort, rather than leaving them to write random checks to separate charities. The idea is to choose one cause at a time for maximum effect.

The collective-impact effort that revived Casa de Luz was the brainchild of Julie Murray, the longtime local philanthropist who guided strategic charity for Caesars Entertainment Corp., worked as national campaign director for Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy and co-founded Three Square Food Bank.

Murray said she first saw what a few strong donors could do together at Three Square, whose 2009 startup was largely funded by a handful of groups that included the Conrad N. Hilton, Donald W. Reynolds and Lincy foundations.

“It was the first time in my life living in Las Vegas and doing decades of charitable work here that I’d seen funders collaborate,” said Murray, who’s now CEO and principal of Moonridge Group Philanthropy Advisors.

So Murray put together the Greater Good Council in 2012 to encourage more partnering. The council’s 20 members include Diana Bennett, CEO of Paragon Gaming Group; Tom Thomas, managing partner of Thomas &Mack Co.; Kris Engelstad McGarry, of the Engelstad Family Foundation; Cindy Dreibelbis, of the R&R Partners Foundation; and Nick Mamula, president of tile company T. Nicholas Co.

It didn’t take long for the council to find its pilot project. Mamula donated tile to Casa de Luz when it first opened in 2009, and he kept in touch with the group, Chapel said. When Chapel told Mamula in August 2012 that the bank was about to foreclose on the landlord, Mamula bought the 3,500-square-foot building and deeded it to the charity. Then, the rest of the Greater Good Council stepped in.

“It was easy to want to help. We saw how much Casa de Luz cared about the community, and how they just opened their hearts and their home to people in need,” Dreibelbis said. “They negotiated their neighbors out of gangs. They gave kids a place to do their schoolwork. They don’t live in fear. They live in love for wanting to make a difference. It pulled at our heartstrings.”

It didn’t take long for the council’s collective impact to snowball.

On top of donating money, food and in-kind help, the 20 council members enlisted friends and business associates. Murray’s friends Carlos and Cindy Santana gave $65,000 through their Milagro Foundation. Kris Engelstad McGarry’s hair salon raised $15,000. Diana Bennett’s friend Nevada Stupak, the son of Stratosphere developer Bob Stupak, generated $10,000 when he asked friends to contribute to the cause for his birthday. In all, the council raised $500,000.

The donations were a godsend for Casa de Luz, Chapel said. Before its rehab, 1,400 square feet of the 51-year-old building’s 3,500-square-foot space were unusable. The plumbing barely worked, and mold infested 40 percent of the building.

“It rained more inside there than it did outside,” he said.

The council fixed up the building, added classrooms for 75 kids and installed walk-in coolers and dry storage. The improvements will allow Casa de Luz to boost its food delivery — already 5,000 pounds a week — by 75 percent, Chapel said. It’ll be able to upgrade its kids’ programs, which include courses on religion, fitness and healthy cooking, as well as an arts program.

Casa de Luz is also better positioned to spread its mission to other underserved neighborhoods, including West Las Vegas and northeast Las Vegas, Chapel said.

The Greater Good Council has big plans for its next project. The group is discussing education initiatives and will meet in late September to narrow the list, Murray said. Council members hope to double the $500,000 they raised for Casa de Luz by inviting foundations from outside Las Vegas and Nevada to match their contributions.

Murray also plans to start a corporate version of the Greater Good Council in late October. The corporate council will either help with the education project, or start its own initiative.

But you don’t need a family foundation or big company at your fingertips to have your own effect, Murray said.

“It would warm my heart if groups of neighbors put together giving circles or joined together to find ways to have a collective impact,” she said.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com. Follow @J_Robison1 on Twitter.

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