Summer in the City completes another year of "painting, planting, and playing" at Hope House & Garden
Once again, Summer in the City sent groups of college and high school students to volunteer at Hope House & Garden each week this summer.
In July and August, they painted, tended the garden, and played with neighborhood kids who stopped by each week.
This summer, VEJ received two grants to support its efforts to feed people who are suffering the effects of the COVID crisis in Detroit.
Co.Act Detroit and United Way of Southeast Michigan each granted VEJ funds to improve its garden and provide food and jobs in northwest Detroit.
"We're always so thankful to community partners like Co.Act and United Way when they support our neighbors and neighborhood through their grants," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "We literally could not do what we are doing this year without this kind of generous support."
Irwin said the grants are funding the employment of local youth at the garden as well as improvements that will make the garden more accessible to the public.
"Since we started gardening at Greydale and Puritan back in 2015, we've always had a dream of the garden being a real resource that gets used by as many neighbors as possible," said Irwin. "These grants and the people and projects they fund will get us much closer to that dream coming true."
After more than three years of planning and preparation, VEJ's Kresge Foundation-funded Hope Park Neighborhood Land Use and Vision Project is finally under way.
The Hope Park Project invites residents of the neighborhood around Hope House & Garden to imagine and plan the future of their community. That includes designing a new Hope House & Garden that meets the desires and needs of neighbors. It also envisions how vacant buildings and land could be put to use for the good of the community.
In the spring, VEJ contracted Detroit community organizer Roslyn Ogburn to lead the project. VEJ also contracted the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at the University of Detroit Mercy to provide community development and design expertise.
Over the summer, Ogburn met with dozens of community leaders to form a Hope Park Project steering committee. The steering committee will take on the task of engaging community residents in the process of designing and planning their neighborhood.
That steering committee, which will comprise 12 - 15 members, will soon be set. However, the members who already committed to serve started meeting in August and will start their outreach in September.
Outreach for the Hope Park Project will consist of community events like VEJ's Sunday Dinners in September and October. It will also consist of small group gatherings that steering committee members host in their own backyards or at Hope House & Garden.
"This process is really about asking the right questions and listening so that we understand the desires and needs of the people who are at home in the Hope Park neighborhood," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "Having residents gather small groups of their neighbors to talk with each other in comfortable places seems like the best way to honor and serve the community through this project."
Irwin said the first formal meeting of the steering committee on August 19 revealed that the Hope Park Project will have to dive into much deeper layers than just design.
"There could be a strong feeling among community leaders that they have seen all of this before," said Irwin. "Foundations, government, nonprofits, and other groups come along and say they are going to do something big for the community. Then, the reality does not meet the expectations that are set. When that happens, people feel angry, hurt, and resentful as any of us would. After a few times, they have a hard time trusting again."
Feelings like these came out in the first steering committee meeting.
So rather than just go straight into design work, Ogburn is creating a series of programs that will allow community members to express and process their feelings. Those programs will take place at Hope House & Garden under the direction of experts with training in helping communities deal with loss and trauma.
"The thing to remember is that the Hope Park Project is really not about the built environment or even about land," said Irwin. "It's about people. It's about how people relate to one another and how they relate to their built and natural environment."
Ogburn hopes that the steering committee will capture feedback and input from 100 to 200 residents by late fall. That would give the designers and steering committee enough information to create concepts for land use, including Hope House & Garden. Those concepts will go before the community for feedback and will eventually lead to the steering committee choosing the final concept and plan sometime in early 2022.
"We have until the end of 2022 to finish the project," said Irwin. "But our goal is to finish the concept and plan by next spring. We want to be able to start seeking funding as early as possible so residents can see us going to work on some of their ideas by next summer."
This year (2021) started in the worst possible way for Hope House & Garden.
A flood caused so much damage to the learning center building that it had to come down.
Then, the usual volunteer groups that get a lot of work done at Hope House & Garden each summer canceled their plans because of COVID.
"The first half of this year was a real downer," said VEJ executive director BT Irwin. "That extended into the summer, when we could not find enough volunteers to do all of the projects that we needed to get done."
But that is changing with the arrival of new grant funding that is helping VEJ hire local people to complete several improvement projects this fall.
Thanks to grants from Co.Act Detroit and the United Way of Southeast Michigan, VEJ will complete projects that will enhance the value of Hope House & Garden to the local community.
Those projects include:
Even the removal of the learning center will turn out for the better.
"We knew that the learning center was in such bad shape that we were probably going to have to replace it anyway," said Irwin. "Taking it down this year allowed us to clear the site and get it ready for whatever will go there next."
What goes there next will be part of the design and plans that come from the Hope Park Project now under way.
"The residents of the Hope Park community will decide what function Hope House & Garden should have in their neighborhood," said Irwin. "We now have a 'blank canvas' available for whatever they plan."
Meanwhile, the neighborhood garden continues to grow.
"The most important thing is for us to grow and harvest as much food as we can between now and the end of the growing season," said Irwin. "That food is for local families that need it."
To that end, Irwin said that VEJ still needs volunteers to come work at Hope House & Garden through the end of the growing season (usually late October).
To find a time to come volunteer, click here.
VEJ's board will soon start the search for the organization's third executive director.
This comes after current executive director BT Irwin announced that he will step down at the end of this year.
"From Day One, I told our board that I would 'set the table' for someone far more capable and qualified than me to lead an Earth justice mission like this one," said Irwin. "After four years, I believe things are in place for that change of leadership to happen now."
Irwin joined VEJ in September 2017 and succeeded founder Patty Gillis, who served as executive director from 2002 until her retirement in 2017.
VEJ's next executive director will take the lead at a time of great change and opportunity.
VEJ has the biggest and still-growing community of donors, program participants, subscribers, and volunteers in its history.
"When you're on a mission like VEJ, it helps to have a growing community of friends and neighbors who come from all walks of life," said Irwin. "If we're going to make real progress for Earth justice, this community is the key."
While VEJ remains a very small nonprofit organization, it is stable and well-positioned for growth and sustained operations.
"We now have a base of loyal donors and volunteers, name recognition in the foundation community, regular programming that is growing in popularity, and an unusually strong financial position for a nonprofit our size," said Irwin. "By the end of 2021, we will also completed a lot of work on Hope House & Garden, getting it in the best shape that it's been since we bought it ten years ago."
Irwin added that a much larger, more active, more diverse board than VEJ had four years ago positions the organization to be more creative and responsive while also being stable and sustainable.
Finally, Irwin said the ongoing Hope Park Project will give VEJ a clear picture of its future, with greater focus on community development and education in northwest Detroit.
"The table is set for someone to apply her or his love for Detroit, Earth justice, and interfaith work to mobilize VEJ's community to do more than ever before," said Irwin. "I can't think of a better way for VEJ to mark its 20th year than by starting a new decade in which it will make its greatest impact."
VEJ's board will soon post the opening and will aim to make a hire by November.
"The plan is for the new executive director and I to overlap for two months," said Irwin. "This will give me a chance to transfer all of my knowledge and relationships to her or him. It will also give the VEJ community a chance to know the new person who will be leading and serving this mission."