Chet Cantrell: Cultivating Beauty in East St. Louis

Our company recently completed articulating our core values:

  • Prioritize People
  •  Love the Problem
  •  Be More… Do More
  • Celebrate Uncommon Genius
  • Cultivate Beauty

These values are fundamentally outward-focused, culminating in the final value, in which we commit to pursuing truth, goodness and beauty. We believe our business interactions should leave our employees, our clients and our communities better than we found them. In that spirit, I intend to celebrate these values wherever I find them, both within and without our own organization. This is the first in what will be an ongoing series of those celebrations, in which I invite all my contacts to consider what some amazing people are doing around us.

Many of you know East St. Louis only by reputation — either the locally-generated reputation of being “off limits” when you were a teenager, or the nationally-generated reputation fostered by Clark Griswold having his hubcaps stolen from under his nose while asking directions in National Lampoon’s Vacation (never mind that this well-known meme is based on a gaffe).

Though it was off-limits for me as a teenager, too (my third-grade teacher’s husband was murdered there…), I now visit East St. Louis regularly, as I live about ten miles east in Shiloh, IL. It’s no longer a particularly dangerous place, but that could be attributed to the fact that it’s mostly desolate — dotted with boarded-up and graffiti-laced buildings.

Amid that desolation and hopelessness, one man is cultivating something beautiful. His name is Chet Cantrell, and he’s the Executive Director of the Christian Activity Center (CAC). The CAC is a non-profit located squarely in the heart of East St. Louis. It’s an after-school and summer program with the mission of preparing youth in East St. Louis for successful futures: spiritually, academically, and physically. Chet is a gifted pedagogist who artfully combines an extensive knowledge of education, decades of experience in the field, and a heart for the city’s children that can only be described as divinely inspired. He has been at it in East St. Louis for almost 30 years, embodying Napoleon Hill’s observation that, “Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success.”

Chet Cantrell

What does success look like in this context? It looks like:

  • A 97% High School graduation rate among CAC children, compared to 10.7% city-wide
  • A CAC average GPA of 3.2, compared to 2.1 district-wide
  • A 3% teen pregnancy rate, compared to 16% city-wide
  • The transformation of two city blocks of “killing fields” (what the local kids called the overgrown lots) to a well-kept playground and recreation area
  • A well-defined vision for the future that includes ball fields, a community garden, and a fine arts establishment

In a word, it looks like hope — hope for an area that hasn’t experienced a lot of reason to hope in my lifetime. One definition of beauty is that which “pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” What Chet is cultivating in East St. Louis through the CAC is beautiful, and I invite you to learn more about it. Check them out at


Photo by davidwilson1949 on VisualHunt / CC BY

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