By Cameron Lee
March 24, 2021
On March 24, 2019, Charlotte native William McNeely got a new lease on life. He received new lungs after a years-long battle with scleroderma, an immune condition that turned into pulmonary fibrosis, a life-threatening disease that occurs when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred. For McNeely, the transplant was not only life saving, but life altering.
“They listed me as ‘end of life.’ That’s what they called me, which, you know, you don’t want to hear that so I’m thinking ‘Okay, what do I do?’ and I literally wrote this sentence down, it says: ‘Commit to doing something greater that will keep giving when you are no longer able to give,” he said.
McNeely conceived the idea of Do Greater Charlotte in 2017– a non-profit facilitating access to creativity, technology, and entrepreneurship for underprivileged kids— when he was first diagnosed with the life-threatening disease. His purpose, inspired by his childhood growing up in west Charlotte as one of four kids raised by a young mother, laid the foundation for what he’d do later in life.
Back in the ’70s, McNeely and his siblings were among the first to be bused to other areas in Charlotte as part of integration in schools. Prior to being bused to south Charlotte, McNeely didn’t even know that part of the city existed, but the new environment didn’t stop them from quickly acclimating to their new surroundings
“I lived the situation that we’re trying to solve right now. And one of the things I think was important for us, was that my mom did a great job of– even though she was single– providing us with exposure to the types of things that we could possibly be,” McNeely said. “So even though we were poor, and on this side of town, she made sure that, you know, we saw the types of creative things that we could do… I bet the four of us were probably in almost every organization that we could be in, you know, from band to ROTC to sports.”
While McNeely’s passion in high school was music, the pressures of earning a real income after college led him to a mechanical engineering career path at NC State. He would later go on to earn a degree in Information Systems at University of North Carolina Greensboro. It was at UNCG where McNeely developed his leadership skills. He started the Black Business Students Association (which is still active today) and manifested a job at Apple after inviting a district manager to speak to the students in the organization.
His career at Apple began in customer support, but McNeely eventually went into sales, then into teaching and training school systems on new technologies for students. After 25 years in the Apple ecosystem and in education technology– also teaching middle school for three years– he felt the urge to make a bigger impact in the community.
“If I look at the underlying focus for my life, and what I’ve done, it has always been helping people reach their full potential,” he said. “You know, taking this technology and the solutions, putting them together for the betterment of moving people forward.”
After his diagnosis of scleroderma and pulmonary fibrosis in 2017, he was strapped to oxygen tanks for nearly three and a half years, but that didn’t stop him from being active in the community. He continued to coach his son’s football team and even took on some motivational speaking engagements as well.
“I did not divert my attention away from the things I hold as my purpose, and that was to help these kids to grow,” he said. “And so if I had stopped that, I probably would have deteriorated a lot faster. But I didn’t, I just kept going.”
In 2019, after a visit to Duke Medical Center, the situation became dire and it was evident McNeely needed a lung transplant. The doctor told McNeely he had two weeks or he might be too weak for the procedure. While the outlook was gloomy and the situation critical, they serendipitously found a matching lung that same week. After a ten-hour surgery, McNeely was able to breathe again.
With newfound life and breath, he quickly got to work on Do Greater Charlotte, returning to the project within six weeks to get the nonprofit off the ground. While developing his mission for the nonprofit, McNeely was sharpening some of his technology and creative skills at the Apple Store when he had an epiphany: “I was using Procreate on a tablet, and I was learning all this stuff myself. And I was like, ‘This is cool, why don’t we have this in the communities where these kids need it?”
So in the fall of 2019, Do Greater Charlotte purchased a step truck from Southern Truck Services to bring technology education directly to neighborhoods that need it the most. They purchased the truck at a discounted rate and local graphics company, Admark, wrapped the truck for free. By Christmas, the truck was fully equipped and ready to go with tablets to help train kids. In January of 2020 they hit the road, working with Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and its Career and Technical Education department to bring the truck to schools on the westside where McNeely once attended as a child.
Then in March of 2020, the pandemic hit. Not only was it a huge scare for McNeely– who recently had a lung transplant– but it created a new obstacle for Do Greater Charlotte. The plan pivoted from mobile learning trucks to expandable outdoor learning spaces with tables, wireless broadband and outdoor monitors. Later that summer, McNeely, while chatting with his mother at Shiloh Institutional Baptist Church in west Charlotte, received a divine offer. One of the trustees of the church learned of McNeely’s aspirations with Do Greater Charlotte, and they offered up 5,000 square feet of the church for creative space. The church– originally established in 1943 on East Hill Street– was once forced to move to South Bruns Avenue in Biddleville (near Johnson C. Smith) under the City of Charlotte’s Urban Renewal Project. In 1983, the congregation moved to 2400 Greenland Avenue off of Wilkinson Boulevard, into a chapel built in 1947 by famed Charlotte architect, Louis H. Asbury (The Asbury at The Dunhill Hotel was named in his honor), where they currently operate today.
While the space is old, outdated, and hadn’t been utilized for years, McNeely looked at it as a way to fulfill his vision of “doing something greater that will keep giving long after he is gone.” Not far from where he grew up, in a quickly gentrifying area of Charlotte located at the corridor to the west side, McNeely jumped at the full-circle opportunity.
“One thing we wanted to make sure from our perspective, is that this church needs to stay. Because what’s gonna happen is, if it doesn’t stay relevant and active in the community, someone is gonna write a check and tell them to leave,” McNeely said.
Since acquiring the new space and naming it the CRTV Lab, McNeely brought on interior designer Sivilay Xayasaene of Gresham Smith, and LaBella Associates– an international architecture, engineering and planning firm– to provide renderings and engineering specs pro bono. The space will provide a co-working area for kids, video, music, and podcast production studios, technology lab, a maker space, and a coffee shop in partnership with Enderly Coffee. With the cultural and economic disparities in any gentrifying area, it was important for McNeely to establish a common place for all people in the neighborhood to gather, so the partnership with the local coffee company made sense. Do Greater Charlotte also plans on starting a job training program at the CRTV Lab to teach kids about small business operations.
Entrepreneurship training will be at the forefront of the CRTV Lab’s initiative with spaces available to create prototype products for business ideas, and an in-house creative agency where students can learn creative marketing skills while assisting local nonprofits and small businesses.
McNeely says they have raised around $200,000 of the $600,000 needed to fully upfit, renovate and equip the space, so they still have a little ways to go. With the three pillars of Do Greater Charlotte’s mission being advanced technology, creative space, and nurturing community, the CRTV Lab will fully cover those initiatives and serve as a bridge for the natives and newcomers in the swiftly evolving area.
For McNeely, the statistics and research behind Charlotte’s social, economic, and digital divide were never very startling, because he’s lived it. As a true native, the opportunity to connect his purpose with his history and the city that he’s always loved so dearly seems like destiny.
“I didn’t stop what I was doing, because I had a disease, I continued to do what I believe I was put here to do. And until it is my time, I am gonna do it.”
In this article
- Black Business Students Association
- Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools
- CRTV Lab
- digital divide
- Do Greater Charlotte
- Duke Medical Center
- Enderly Coffee shop
- Entrepreneurship training
- Gresham Smith
- LaBella Associates
- Louis H. Asbury
- pulmonary fibrosis
- Shiloh Baptist Church
- Shiloh Institutional Baptist Church
- west charlotte
- west corridor
- Wilkinson Blvd
- William McNeely
- Wilson Middle School