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Annapolis

Annapolis native turns his troubled past into an opportunity to help the community that raised him with nonprofit

Lovell Offer is the founder of Small City Big Dreams, a life enrichment nonprofit organization based in Annapolis. Offer and Assistant Director Heaven White operate the nonprofit out of a community resource center in Harbour House.

Growing up, Lovell Offer woke up most days thinking he would end up in jail.

Born to a single mother, Offer’s only role models were the people he met on the streets of Annapolis. As a teenager, Offer was kicked out of Old Mill High School in Millersville for selling marijuana, he said. And before his 21st birthday, he was convicted of a drug charge in Annapolis.

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“I was a part of my first police raid at six years old,” Offer said. “Growing up, people outside of my community would say how wild I was, but they didn’t know my life. They didn’t know what I had been through.”

The last thing Offer thought he would do was start a nonprofit. That changed in January when Offer, founded Small City Big Dreams, SCBD for short, an organization that helps residents suffering from addiction enter rehab and connect unemployed residents with jobs. The nonprofit provides aid to residents of the all the lower income communities in Annapolis including Harbour House apartments where SCBD’s office is located.

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“It’s a big change because I was on the other side of life out here,” said Offer, who turned 39 in February. “I specialized in making money off people being addicted to drugs, now I’m helping them get clean.”

From getting people enrolled at Deborah’s Place, a rehab facility in Baltimore, to finding jobs for people trying to get their life back on track, Offer’s nonprofit is helping the community in a multitude of ways. In its first seven months, 30 people have entered rehab thanks to Offer’s work and hundreds more have gotten interviews for jobs.

“My goal for this organization is for us to be our own social service,” Offer said. " Everybody just needs a little help sometimes.”

The idea to start SCBD was unexpected, Offer said, the result of a series of dead-end jobs that finally led him to meet Adetola Ajayi, the African American Liaison for Mayor Gavin Buckley, who noticed Offer’s tremendous work ethic.

While job driving forklifts for Budweiser, Offer met an former co-worker who told him he ran a cleaning business on the side. An entrepreneur at heart, Offer decided to try his hand at starting a cleaning business of his own. It wouldn’t be long before Offer started hiring people in the community to help him clean.

“It was a perfect match,” Offer said. “I could get a couple extra hands to take on more work and the people I worked with in the neighborhood could get a couple dollars in their hand.”

In 2020, while he was running that operation he caught the eye of Ajayi, who was spearheading a program run by the city called No Harm, a harm reduction outreach initiative. Ajayi felt that Offer’s relationship with the community would be beneficial to the program. But the collaboration almost didn’t happen. When Ajayi came to Offer to ask for his help, Offer was initially apprehensive because he was told that his participation would have to include crossing paths with the police.

“He said I was going to need to work with the cops and I said ‘no’ right away,” Offer recalls. “It seemed like a good opportunity otherwise, but me and police just didn’t get along.”

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Shortly after turning down the opportunity Offer would get in touch with his older cousin who he affectionately refers to as his “OG” because he was more of a father figure.

“I called my OG and told him about the job but that I turned it down because I didn’t want to work with the police,” Offer said. " He completely cursed me out and told me I wasn’t going to get far if I kept letting the street mentality instruct my choices.”

Offer, whom Ajayi had first met in 2007, was “a humble leader that speaks truth to power,” Ajayi said. “I have literally seen him turn lemons into lemonade, and I’m so proud to see his continued accomplishments and success in Annapolis and beyond.”

Taking the job with Ajayi is a decision he now considers one of the best of his life. It gave him the chance to see an organized effort to correct some of the ills that plague the community he loved and the motivation to start his own initiative.

“I just knew I liked the work,” Offer said. “I had given money to people to help them out or bought shoes for some kids that didn’t have much but it wasn’t organized. Now after working with [Ajayi] I knew how to run a similar organization.”

Offer partnered with Heaven White to run SCBD. White, a Baltimore native who moved to Annapolis to be near family while she raised her kids, serves as the assistant director.

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“I just want to see this area reach its potential and not be what so many assume it is,” said White, 44, whose eldest son is Alderman DaJuan Gay, the 25-year-old representative for Ward 6.

”We are so much better but it takes everyone doing their part, I think this is my part,” she said.

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Offer also has joined forces with Comacell Brown, a local artist who goes by Cell Spitfire, to offer financial literacy and other seminars to residents and business owners.

In the first seven months, Offer has connected with the Parole employment agency, Express Employment Professionals, to help get more than 200 people job interviews. Thanks to partnerships with CBS Driving School in Glen Burnie and CDL Book Club, a drivers license training school in Laurel, 10 people have received their licenses. Another four people have started their own businesses after working with SCBD.

“I have so much experience tracking down different kinds of jobs because I always refused to stop hustling even though having a record would get in the way,” Offer said. “But that’s how I know exactly the type of jobs people can do who are in a similar bind.”

The nonprofit is currently running a diaper drive for mothers.

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Reflecting on his life, Offer acknowledges that all of his decisions — for good or bad — have led to this work.

“Even if it was messed up, it led to the next right thing,” he said. “Now, helping people how I am, this feels like what it was all for.”

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