What surprised you this summer?
Each week, the many various volunteer groups astonished me with their modest, selfless yearning to help others they had never met before. Through the incredible motivation of youth group leaders and motivating communities, groups of young people traveled from all over the country to Detroit, all with their own unique stories of why they were there. For most youth, the awesome, out-of-the-ordinary quality of giving up a week of their time to help people in a distant city was unremarkable in their eyes. This was another week in their summer- most expected a time to connect with other youth and adults in their church, (and yearn for when the next opportunityfor ice cream or basketball could come)... but they quickly realized that this whole mission business was so much deeper than that, and I cherished seeing that realization.
What is the best/most rewarding part of your job? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced/overcome working here?
As the Project Partner Coordinator at Motown Mission, my primary focus has been to establish relationships with contact people of the existing non-profit organizations that our program works alongside. These contact people came from many various backgrounds; social workers, clergy, neighbors, construction workers, non-profit managers… Together, they came to work with our volunteers each day with a common passion; that through the work done that day, one story of economic disaster could be changed. These are the Project Partners of Motown Mission. They organize the projects each volunteer team is assigned, provide most materials, and are the connection from the homeowner to the volunteer team. These folks advocate for families or elders with few resources, those who are trying to make it by on social security alone, or struggling through a physical limitation. For me, these advocates are the unsung heroes that work little by little to make big differences in individual lives. Through these devoted folks, I have gained insight to the neighborhoods of Detroit, stepping into homes of families and elders with diverse stories and daily needs. These moments and connections challenged my perceptions of what blight looks like, and who experiences poverty. As Vincent, a staffer from 2015, wisely put, "It’s different when you meet the people who live in these circumstances. A million is merely a statistic. An elderly woman whose home is... falling apart around her, with a roof that barely seems to keep out any rain is something completely different. A mother and her children doing their best to live in a home where the floors look ready to break through is not a statistic. A man with an eye that is completely clouded over for lack of treatment- that is not some sad number. These are real people, and I’ve met them. I’ve spoken to them, and I’ve come to know them. They aren’t just ‘poor people,’ they are human beings like you or me." These connections broke down the walls that crime statistics and fear-mongering had built in my head, replacing those clear-cut lines of despair, with sunny and sweaty days centered around teamwork, belly laughs, and a sense of progress. I loved meeting homeowners and neighbors, but I also gained remarkable insight into the unending dedication and passion from the Project Partners, as I watched them lead teams to make real change in their clients', neighbors', or friends' lives.
This summer, this favorite story of mine came to mind almost every day…
"There was a young man walking down a deserted beach just before dawn. In the distance he saw a frail old man. As he approached the old man, he saw him picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea.
The young man gazed in wonder as the old man again and again threw the small starfish from the sand to the water. He asked, "Old man, why do you spend so much energy doing what seems to be a waste of time?"
The old man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun. " But there must be thousands of beached and millions of starfish!" exclaimed the young man. "How can you make any difference?" The old man looked down at the small starfish in his hand and as he threw it into the safety of the sea, he said, "I made a difference to this one."
Driving through the neighborhoods of Detroit, I was often overwhelmed by just how much need there is. I grew weary counting how many burned out homes a neighborhood might have, or lay awake at night remembering the numerous frail people who approached my car at a stop light in one day, asking for food or cigarettes. For every garage we helped repaint, lawn we mowed, or house we boarded up, there seemed to countless more begging our attention. But then, at the end of a truly exhausting day, I would get an excited call from Ms. Davis at North End, or an email from Emily Cutler at Neighborhood Service Organization - brimming with successful stories for the day… and I would hear a small voice in my ear saying "I made a difference to this one."
Elise is a rising Junior at Mount Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts and is a history and french double major with a minor in non-profit management.