U-M law students support Detroit neighborhood’s revitalization with day of service

Clearing brush and painting vacant buildings south of Eight Mile Road is not how many students expect to spend their last week of summer, but for University of Michigan’s first-year law students it has become a biannual tradition.

Since 2015, over 300 University of Michigan law students have volunteered at the Denby Neighborhood Alliance’s “Great Community Now” Day of Service in late August.

The Day of Service is part of a multiyear effort to revitalize the Denby neighborhood, a once thriving community that has struggled with vacancy, blight and crime. Denby residents have led the community’s revitalization efforts, recruiting over 10,000 volunteers and securing millions in financial support from foundations including The Kresge Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Impact Detroit, and Life Remodeled. As a result, blighted and abandoned properties have been repurposed, boulevards beautified, and a new community park was built. But beyond the physical improvements, Denby’s volunteer program has begun to shift outsiders’ perspectives on Detroit and its recovery.

“Our volunteer program is helping us reshape Detroit’s narrative,” said Sandra Turner-Handy, community engagement director at the Michigan Environmental Council and longtime resident of Denby. “The city is changing. People who could leave Detroit are choosing to stay because they see the potential and are committed to transforming the city. Outsiders don’t feel the energy until they come and volunteer.”

Young People Leading the Charge

What makes Denby’s story unique is the community’s focus on youth empowerment. Denby High School students are leading the neighborhood’s revitalization.

In 2013, Denby High School tasked its senior class with designing a community legacy project. Out of 200 submissions, one proposal rose to the top -- the need for a safe outdoor space that would provide recreational opportunities for everyone. The students decided to renovate Skinner Park, a largely abandoned park adjacent to Denby High School. They worked with Impact Detroit, an organization that provides support services to neighborhood revitalization efforts, to create a plan for building a community green space.

The students’ initiative drew the attention of Life Remodeled, a nonprofit that helps Detroit neighborhoods achieve their revitalization goals. In August 2016, Life Remodeled availed the funding, labor, and materials necessary to achieve Denby’s vision. In just six days, Skinner Park was transformed into community green space. Volunteers built a performance pavilion with solar panels and a storm water catchment system, a picnic area, playground, putting green, children’s climbing steps, flower and produce gardens, as well as basketball, pickleball, and volleyball courts.

Thinking Forward

The Life Remodeled partnership has ended, but that doesn’t mean Denby’s revitalization efforts are slowing down.

Denby’s future plans include building a botanical garden on the site of a former apartment complex. The community also plans to renovate two abandoned duplexes into energy efficient homes for homeless families. Denby’s youth plan to get the work done by drawing on long-standing university rivalries to recruit hundreds more volunteers.

“The kids proposed we run a competition between Michigan, Michigan State, University of Detroit-Mercy, and Wayne State to see which university can mobilize the most volunteers,” said Turner-Handy, “It’s great to see them thinking about how to engage outsiders and continue to build upon our progress. They are the ones who will be here 50 years from now, and they are the ones that need to be a part of turning the city around into a place they want to stay to live work, raise their families, and play.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the Denby Neighborhood Alliance or future volunteer opportunities, contact Sandra Turner-Handy at the Michigan Environmental Council, (313) 926-9811 or [email protected].

-Katie Parrish, MEC

RELATED TOPICS: charitable giving

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