Peoria (HOI) -- Zack Belk, 29, has accomplished a lot of the things on a 20-something's checklist. He has his degree. He has a job he enjoys. He's engaged. But, maybe most notably, he's a home owner - three times over.
Belk grew up in Peoria's south side. He had moved 10 times by his 15th birthday. Belk spent three years living with his mom at Harrison Homes. He thought about dropping out of grade school.
But, 15 years after a fateful conversation with his father, Zack was able to make down payments for houses for his mom, dad, and himself.
Belk's mother, RuthAnn Thompson, calls him the "master manifester." She says if he sets his mind to a goal there's no stopping him from achieving it. His determination changed the course of his life, as well as his parents' and 12 siblings'.
Ten homes in 15 years
Stability was hard to come by during Belk's childhood.
"I remember times where sometimes we didn’t have food at night because the Link card to ran out so I ate at school and I was it," he said. "I remember laying there upset knowing that this isn't the life for me but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that was probably not how a kid should be growing up."
Not only were his housing situations fleeting, they were often undesirable and inefficient. There were winter days when the stove was the only source of heat in their home. They covered their windows with plastic to make up for gaps in the insulation.
"We had a lot of ups and downs," Thompson said. "I think that’s another reason may be why he such a go-getter because so many things that are out of his control and he could not have when he was younger he was like, 'that’s not acceptable for me.'"
Those ups and downs took a toll, though. Belk acted out as a kid. He was expelled from seventh grade twice. He flunked his third try.
Putting in the work
Belk moved in with his father, LaMont Carroll, when he was 15. Carroll served in the military, and Belk's mother was hoping he could teach their son about being a man.
Soon after he moved in, Belk told his dad he wanted to give up on school.
"I said, 'you’re in seventh grade. Who does that?'" Carroll remembers. "I got up from the table and I said, 'I’m going to get my gun.' He said, "why?' and I said, 'because I’m going to use it on you.'
"'[Belk] said, 'why would you do that?' and I said, 'if you drop out of grade school someone’s going to kill you because you have no job skills. The only thing you’re going to be able to do is sell drugs and rob people, and you’re going to get killed anyway. I’m just cutting out all anguish and pain.'"
From that wake-up call, Zack poured himself into his school work. He worked with the Tri-County Urban League to get back on track in the classroom and past that seventh grade hurdle.
Once he got to Woodruff High School, Belk started playing football. The coach at the time, Tim Thornton, remembers Zack seemed more mature than the other players.
"I said, 'if you drop out of grade school someone’s going to kill you because you have no job skills. The only thing you’re going to be able to do is sell drugs and rob people.'"LaMont Carroll, Zack's father, recants a conversation from when Zack was 15.
"I think he always had a good understanding that stuff was not just going to fall on his lap," Thornton said. "That was one of his greatest skills early that he figured out that hard work would translate and I think that has for him."
"I think everyone should play sports of some kind," Belk said. "It teaches you hard work, determination, and it really holds you accountable. If you want to reach the highest level in sports you have to put in the work."
"I told him you can have anything you want in life you, but there are two things you’ve got to do," Carroll said. "You’ve got to get all A’s and B’s, and preferably more A’s than B’s, and you have to take the garbage out. You do those two things we will never have a problem - and he always took the garbage out."
He graduated from Woodruff High School sixth in his class in 2011. From Woodruff, Zack played college football for two years at Knox College before graduating from Illinois State with a degree in sociology in 2015.
The master manifester
As Belk pursued his degree he developed an entrepreneurial spirit. Where he used to collect shoes and let them pile up, he started to sell some of them off. He worked at multiple Crusens locations in Peoria trying to build up his bank account.
He disdains renting and views it as an economic trap. As he grew up, he watched his mom and dad give hundreds of dollars to landlords to stay in unsatisfactory homes with nothing to show for it years later.
He wanted to help, especially his mom. She worked multiple jobs to keep food on the table, but she needed someone to help her get ahead. She and six of Belk's brothers were living in section 8 housing.
"I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now if it weren't for my mother," he said. "The least I can do is try to get her a house."
In 2016, Zack covered the down payment and closing costs. All told, it was about $8,000.
Going from a college student to a homeowner in a year is hard, but Belk said he focused on getting his credit in line and being frugal. "If you think about it," Belk says, "if you have a couple of years to save up $8,000 is really not that much money."
"I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now if it weren't for my mother. The least I can do is try to get her a house."Zack Belk
His mother said she thought she might pass out when she signed the papers before moving into her new home. "I’ve never really had many people that ever made a promise and kept it," Thompson said. "For him to actually do that for me and his brothers means the world to me."
In 2017, Belk bought his house. He works as a recruiter for an IT company, TEKSystems. It's commission based, and Belk never lost that frugal spirit. He kept saving.
Meanwhile, his father's living situation became dangerous. Carroll was not in section 8, but one incident made it clear he needed to move. Belk says there was a shooting that penetrated his dad's house. Bullets wound up in his little sister's room.
"It didn't sit right with me," Belk said.
In late 2018, he took his dad to see a house. Carroll says the whole thing snuck up on him. "Zack said, 'all right I’m going to buy it for you.' I said, 'no stop you’re not buying me a house.' The next thing I know he says, 'meet me at the loan company, we've got to sign these papers!' And I said, 'oh this is real! It's really real!"
"The smile on his face holding that sign that says sold it’s a memory I’ll never forget," Belk said. "I think of our family has a circle and I want our money to stay in that circle as much as possible."
"The next thing I know he says, 'meet me at the loan company, we've got to sign these papers!' And I said, 'oh this is real! It's really real!"LaMont Carroll
The next generation
Zack is the oldest of 13 brothers and sisters. As that group has gotten older, they have started to understand what his contributions have meant to their family.
"When Zack makes decisions he was always thinks them through," his brother, Kendrick Green, said. "Whenever you catch him laying down on his phone or something like that is researching stuff on real estate or stuff like that. He’s very thorough."
"I think of our family has a circle and I want our money to stay in that circle as much as possible."Zack Belk
Zack became the first person in his family to graduate from college. Green, a sophomore offensive lineman at the University of Illinois, will be the second.
"I see what working hard and being smart making good decisions here and there and strategically moving through life gets us," Green says.
Belk also has his younger brothers over on the weekends so he can pay them to do chores. That gives them a chance to earn some money - and learn how to manage it.
Late last week, Belk toured a few houses in Peoria. His family doesn't need any more places to live. These are for his emerging real estate portfolio.
Profit is part of his motive as he acquires more houses, but he also wants to give families like his a chance.
"Part of what I want to do now is try to create high-quality houses for people like myself that typically would not be allowed to enter those types of homes," he said. "People that grew up in similar situations as me. People that really have good hearts they just need the right foundation to get ahead."
He's already had one offer accepted. The next step is finding people that fit the mission he's on. He thinks his background as a recruiter will help him see people's potential.
"I want to be able to bridge that gap between quality people and quality homes."
Once a year or so, Zack takes a trip to Harrison Homes.
He takes a lap around the grounds. The unit he and his mom lived in was replaced with newer housing, but he recognizes the old Harrison School building he used to attend. It's been gutted.
His memories are not all bad. The living space was small and not well insulated from other units, but he also remembers playing basketball and running around like most kids would.
His visits are about more than nostalgia. They help put his current situation in perspective. He had help from important role models in his life, like his parents and Coach Thornton. He took advantage of community programs to get his academic life in order.
But, at the end of the day, there was no lottery ticket or professional sports contract to magically improve his lot in life. There was just work.
"You hear, 'if it plays in Peoria it can play anywhere,'" he says. "Well, I tell people if you can make it out of the south end of Peoria I promise no matter where you go you can be successful."