Grantee Spotlight: Neighborhoods
Note: A version of this story appeared on Flintside.com. It is used with permission.
It sat as a reminder of what used to be.
It was Ralph J. Bunche Elementary School, a place where generations of Flint school children learned and played. Carved out from a corner of Max Brandon Park on the northside of Flint, the school had sat vacant for six years.
A shell. Until now.
Now, it is the Flint Development Center. Now, it is a place for the young and not-so-young, a place to learn, a place to have fun, a place to find a friend. It is an investment. It is a new beginning. It is a dream come true.
No longer a reminder of what was, instead it stands a reminder of what can be.
More than 100 people flocked to the Flint Development Center in June 2017 for its official ribbon cutting and grand opening celebration. The multi-purpose facility houses offices and programs of the Genesee County Parks and Recreation Commission, YMCA of Greater Flint, Flintball.com, and Shooting for the Stars. It is now home to recreational activities and after-school programs, and will offer an even greater number of services to the community once renovations are complete.
The goal is for youth and senior activities, early childhood development, recreation and exercise opportunities, job training, entrepreneurial services, and more to be housed under one roof for the benefit of the surrounding neighborhood.
“Especially in young people, the more they see examples of positive outcomes, the more positive outcomes will be created,” said Daniel Smith, then-pastor of Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church, which created the nonprofit that purchased the building in 2014. “That’s what this place has the potential to be—a hub for the whole community.”
Evergreen Community Development Initiative (ECDI), a nonprofit affiliated with Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church, purchased the Bunche Elementary building in 2014 with the intention of creating a one-stop facility where residents can safely engage in social, educational, cultural, recreational, community service, civic and governmental activities.
Smiling and pointing over to the freshly cut lawn and the rebuilt playground, “Look over here,” Smith says. “We cut and trimmed the lawn the day before yesterday. Right after we did that, we had children from the neighborhood coming in and playing basketball. That tells me we already have people looking for a place that is cleaned up, a safe place for them to play.”
Shakeem Reebes, 20, went to Bunche Elementary School. It was, he said, “like any other school. It was fun.” Now, he serves as a Shooting for the Stars youth leader.
Standing inside the old gymnasium with a new patched floor, he remembers playing every sport at Bunche—flag football, floor hockey, basketball, kickball.
“It feels good to see it coming back,” Reebes said. And, it feels even better to know that Flint Development Center will be a safe haven.
“We have a new thing going on here—where if a kid needs help with homework or something, or if they are hungry and need to eat, or just play ball—they can do that. … I’m here to help kids. To tell them they can come here and it’s ok, that this place is for them. This is where they can come and be safe and just enjoy being a kid.”
Taylor Clark, assistant director of YMCA Safe Places and coordinator at the Flint Development Center, is aggressive and determined to get started. Programming will be year-round and include field trips, nutritional food, learning activities.
“My plan is to get as many kids here as possible at all times,” she said. “The base goal is 25 to 30 kids daily or higher.
Smith notes “It took a lot of money and a lot of teamwork” to open Flint Development Center—and they aren’t done yet.
Since 2015, the Ruth Mott Foundation has granted $426,680 in general operating support for the center. In 2016, the Foundation did something its never done before—agreed to guarantee a construction loan for the Evergreen Community Development Initiative to get this first of three phases of construction done.
With help from Ruth Mott Foundation, Chemical Bank and other stakeholders, more than $200,000 was raised to get portions of the school open for summer programs. A total renovation of the building is estimated at $800,000.
Opening the building and hosting the ribbon cutting are, Smith said, huge achievements—and he hopes it will inspire others to support their programming and the continued renovations.
Then-Flint Mayor Karen Weaver applauded the work happening at Flint Development Center.
“People are talking about the city of Flint coming back, well here we have evidence of that,” she said. “We see people coming together for the city. People who believe in the city, they are showing us that Flint is on the way back.”
Repurposing vacant school buildings was an approach highlighted in the Imagine Flint Master Plan. Strong community centers can help deter residents from leaving, connect residents to needed services and contribute overall to a strong and safe neighborhood. The location of the Flint Development Center is ideal because of nearby Max Brandon Park, one of the largest parks in Genesee County with 107 acres of urban forest.
“With the Flint water crisis, economic challenges and health disparities, we know first-hand that there is a great need for a facility like the Flint Development Center,” said Shelly Sparks, executive director of the center. “Our city of Flint will be strengthened if we create more common places for all citizens to safely interact while practicing the principles of community.”
In the first phase of the construction plan after purchasing the building, the Flint Development Group conducted a massive cleanup and made the plumbing and boiler systems operational. The newly renovated area includes meeting space, gymnasium, community room, auditorium, front office, computer room and two classrooms.
“We listened to north Flint residents who told us they value community centers and neighborhood schools,” said Handy Lindsey, then-president of the Ruth Mott Foundation. “The Flint Development Center was the first neighborhood hub we supported as part of our north Flint strategy, and the work being done here is completely aligned with our goal of achieving impact with the residents of north Flint.”
For more information, visit FlintDC.org.