How to Save Children: Advice from The Front Porch
A Guide for Governments, School Systems and Communities
Fairy Tale On The Porch:
A Little Brother’s Grimm Gone Gangster & A Little Sesame Street
Last Updated 8/14/14
Once upon a time, in the most violent city in the violent United States, I sat on the 4 foot by 4 foot porch of my lifelong home. It was in the neighborhood that at one time was the home of the infamous drug dealers the Chamberlain Brothers, White Boy Rick and near Young Boys Incorporated. It was where the rich kids from Grosse Pointe would buy houses to use as locations for drug deals. I grew up unaware of these facts in the middle of it, sheltered in private school, backyards, and after-school activities. I grew up playing from dawn to dusk in a school where play was important for class time, recess, and lunch. My early years were spent in sandboxes making mud muffins and in refrigerator box houses. All I ever wanted to do was play with the other neighborhood kids.
In college, I spent a semester abroad. I was lucky enough to be accepted to a program that would transport me past the liquor stores and used car lots to live next to a castle. In that city, reading was a popular recreation in a country with about 100% literacy. I could walk home at 5 am alone. I was among the kids from the “best” universities in the country, enjoying learning the concepts of civil society. Ghetto girl. Two experiences there struck me. I took a trip to a former concentration camp. I arrived on a rainy November day and the city was deserted. In the museum, a woman whose mom was nurse who was killed with group of kids she was caring for was giving a lecture. All around on the walls were crayon drawings of the kids who were in that camp, many of whose lives ended in Auschwitz. There were many artists sent to that camp and one of them was a teacher of children. She looked beyond the situation and her own suffering and got the kids to draw and express their feelings about their time there. She looked at a really hopeless situation and decided to give the kids art therapy. I was in awe of her inner strength and her commitment to children and creativity.
The second experience was when I accidentally got on the train to the former Yugoslavia instead of back to the university I was attending. I saw sadness in children I had never noticed before. It was the sadness of children returning to a war torn place full of unhappy adults. When I returned home, I was doing an internship where I assisted an immigration caseworker. The caseworker told me the story of the family who in the middle of the war in the former Yugoslavia, these two parents had nothing to give a child whose birthday it was. They found a pencil, wrapped it up, sang and made a big deal. The child was thrilled with the pencil because they really just wanted their birthday celebrated, war or not. This gave me a basis for my later work with children, about the needs of children. Laptops and video games pale in comparison to attention.
When I returned home I was suddenly aware of the constant gunshots of the war I was living in. I probably should have been a Peace Corps worker, but something told me that the best way to help people is to help the people whose culture you know the best. I took a peace studies class on non-violence and began to realize that although violence was normal to me in the past, it was now unacceptable. I began to do my university homework on the porch. I was extremely disturbed to see the backdrop of my neighborhood, a place full of hiding spots and sidewalk squares for four-square, becoming a place where childhood was an endangered species.
I sat on my porch and children came by. My mom was a neighborhood lady who had always lent out the bike pump and delivered the community newsletter. So I knew some of their parents. The kids were bored. Many of the children didn’t know how to play. The girls spent their free time talking about each other, and the boys fought and pretended to be in gangs. Kids would run by or drive by with guns shooting. Mostly at night, but often enough in the day time to keep everyone in the neighborhood living in a constant low level of alarm. I was scared for the kids. It was especially bizarre for me because I had an internship at the mayor's office. I would go from the super secure office overlooking the river to my home where I was scared a stray bullet might get me between the car and the house. Myself, the kids and all the neighbors got used to it in a sort of continuing post-traumatic stress way. No one was coming to save us. It seemed the police or other enforcement made things worse. There were police dogs, the tank, and the swat team in the bushes, the white men sitting in their unmarked cars and the helicopter with the searchlight overhead. The shooting just went on and on. Many of the neighbors believed in having a future for the children they saw outside. They turned to each other to try to make this happen. Through these relationships, one kind grandma’s cupcakes, water fights, the occasional block club party, some donations, a garden and library books, the bullets became an annoying background for the children playing. Drop the Uno cards, run to the backyard, and get down. Wait a couple days for the trouble to pass and finish the game. Crawl to the back of the house at night when there is shooting, lay down, and discuss it as a group the next day. It became sadly normal, almost mundane. A lot of those kids are older now. Some chose that lifestyle and some didn’t. Some of the younger kids openly make fun of the kids who chose that lifestyle, with a wicked dark sense of humor that could only be appreciated by other residents of the neighborhood and maybe refugees. Through the years, with a lot of support, I built this outgrowth of a block club into a nonprofit organization, The Front Porch.
I am white. I wondered how this would play out. Detroit kids who are white, African American, Latino, Asian, Arab are all Detroit kids. I realized that at my grade school reunion. There are some cultural differences, but the environment shapes kids into a certain kind of kid – the cultural institutions, the spots for kids to play, a sense of not being safe sometimes, the strong sense of community makes you into a certain sort of person with an extra spine and a great sense of humor. After so many years, I began to realize it was really good versus evil in a very comic book sort of way, and race has meant very little for the Porch. Our first board had one of the moms on it that was African American and worked for a civil rights dept in the government. Another was the African American dad next door. They believed in me and the idea and were so kind to help make the Porch possible for the kids in so many everyday ways – as simple as lending a card table or allowing the kids to use their backyard or talking with other parents.
The worst racism I came up against was when people were just using race to make me look bad because they had some ulterior motive, which was usually money/community power, or that they didn’t want to do the work required to help the kids. There seems to be a certain generation, ironically the generation who came into adulthood in the 60’s and 70’s, who carry the burden of racism with them and expressed it at me. There are some amazingly enlightened white and African American people who came through that, but that is the generation of people who are usually most racist, both African American and white. African American people usually expressed it through suspicion “What you doing with these kids?” Older people, both African American and white, were almost always supportive because they know all kids need the same things from adults - skin color means nothing, but childhood means a lot. Younger people have very little racism. Part of the reason for that is just the passage of time. Also, a lot of those younger people grew up isolated from most white people. One of the teenagers now, who rarely left the boarders of Detroit except to visit down South, said she never experienced racism. On field trips, I was very aware of the racism, esp. when the Porch just started. I knew I had to be very protective of the kids and if I saw someone looking at them or about to say something negative to them from negative assumptions, I was sure to be right there. Being white was sometimes useful as a buffer, a shield for them. I used it anytime I needed to. Over time, I became horrified by that “those poor black kids” attitude people take and some foundations expect in their grant applications. I hated when folks would assume I was their social worker on a field trip, when I was really their neighbor and in some cases damn near a part of their families. I hated to write that sappy crap about “underprivileged children” because first, I was one of those kids and also I had met enough kids in rich suburbs who were “underprivileged” in the sense that their parents were emotionally neglecting them. The suburban kids I met often didn’t know how to interact with each other. They weren’t jumping rope, sitting on the porch with a neighborhood grandma, or spending time with a billion cousins. I felt bad for them when I would visit the sterile suburbs.
My being white sometimes worked against the group. One time, a national African American magazine called because they were having a charity fundraiser in Detroit. They had found the group on the Internet and saw that it was founded by a woman, so they wanted to feature the charity along with others, until they found out I was white. Basically the African American magazine denied African American children the chance to benefit from the money. The assistant director, Ms. Karen, went to bat for me, called the magazine back and tried her best to convince them to take the group into the event, but there was no changing it.
Growing a Nonprofit
Becoming a nonprofit and finding support was a perilous road with no map. It wasn’t built from an initiative, a trust fund, or university research. Just one woman, begging around for any help I could. I started with the people I knew were already helping. There was a neighborhood association, AWARE, in my area. Drugs were drowning the neighborhood and neighbors were losing their sense of safety. The neighborhood association met in a local church basement, with all hard-working people on folding chairs wondering if their possessions would still be in their houses when they returned. While concrete changes did not come from these meetings, the relationships that were formed granted a sense of power to those who attended. The meetings served as a much-needed support group.
I started to call block club meetings with the neighbors. While the attendance of the adults dwindled, the children remained. The perseverance of the children may have had to do with the cookies served at the meetings. However, something unexpected came about. Neighbors began to donate books, craft materials, and advice.I brought out crafts and games for the kids on the porch. For two years, we used whatever was available. Most of the materials were recycled from garage sales or donations from attics of neighbors. The kids began to play, to create a safe place in the midst of a war.
The leader of the local community group suggested we ask to use the nearby local senior center/transportation company in the evening. It was a storefront which seated about thirty people. The basement leaked and smelled horrible when it rained. The tables were rickety and many of the chairs were broken. I attended an endless set of meetings during which they grilled me about what I planned to do with children. In the meantime, we used the library, which was over a mile away. My sister, a librarian who had lived on the same block, helped from the beginning. Through her connections and the kindness of other librarians, the library gave us meeting space. My sister brought books and got the kids on the street to participate in the summer reading program. The books from the library supplied the group with activity ideas. At the library, the kids did treasure hunts through the stacks and raced around the world in the atlases using latitude and longitude clues. I wanted them to know that the world was bigger than their violent neighborhood. I wanted them to know that living under constant threat of being killed was not normal or acceptable.
I took a multicultural class at a local non-profit, recommended by a board member who knew the people at that group. In order to get insurance before using the senior center, a board member from that group wrote the Porch a check. While this seems like a small business matter, we learned through trial and error that it was essential to be indoors to have regularly scheduled programming. The senior center also told the group we had to be a 501c3 nonprofit organization. So I took a class at the local accounting nonprofit and filled out the forms. A friend donated the money for filing and a few months later, the group was a 501c3.
At the senior center, the kids got to have a fabulous time. There were computers on high speed internet, a printer to print out homework, a cabinet of games and educational resources, a kitchen and a pool table. The kids would do their homework then choose what they wanted to do: play pool, help cook community dinner, play on the computers, just sit and talk and listen to music, do whatever activity was planned for the day. It might be anything the kids requested the week before or some idea the adults had or an opportunity that presented it self: movie making, ballroom dance, making paper flowers, or playing wiffle ball at the park across the street. Regular programming like a photography class for 8 weeks never worked well. First, because I don’t think kids are really serious about any activity and they shouldn’t be – they are kids. And second, they didn’t always show up consistently so building on programming from the week before was frustrating and nearly impossible. The kids made messes and irritated one senior center director (carpets and large groups of children never mix). Fortunately, the director over the whole group was friends with the mother of a neighbor. He knew the nightmare stories of the neighborhood and protected the group from being kicked out for being sloppy. The center offered to write a Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant for the group- this is money that comes from the federal government (HUD) through the city. It took about three years to get the first contract through. Alone, the group never could have accessed that money. It was a political process and it was a reimbursement grant. The group had no money to start the reimbursement with so the community group fronted it for the group. The money came painfully slow through the city, so the whole community group (low-income/senior transportation, senior center, and The Porch) was always on the edge of financial collapse. The group as a whole got a loan from a local bank to fill in the gaps when the city was not reimbursing in any timely manner – months became years. Essentially, the community group was loaning the city money. When the community group threatened to sue the city, the city responded by saying they would never get that grant money again.
At the community center a woman from the advisory board convinced the group to bring the kids to the neighborhood recreation center. At that time the neighborhood between the group’s neighborhood and the recreation center was not safe to walk through. Eventually, it was less scary and the group started to go there. At first, they rode bikes. Then they began to have a formal summer program. The community center hired staff for them, which they could have never done on their own budget. They walked the mile and a half there because the community center’s buses wouldn’t accommodate the group during business hours and they got a bus ride home. Everyone got used to the walking. The pool was still nice despite the rusty showers. The director kindly let them use the activity room (a room with peeling, prison-blue walls). Sometimes the workers who used the room in for day camp resented the group using it, bringing more kids there in the evening hid the fans from the group during scorching Detroit summers. Eventually, the group stopped using the room and just had classes outside on the lawn. Except one time a science program brought the bats that needed darkness Outside the classrooms were blankets set far apart.
Later, the city knocked down the long condemned, asbestos filled building and put up a new center. The woman and the now assistant director of the group went to every meeting about the new center. Trying to get input into the center was extremely difficult and the most painful community work I ever did. I arranged a meeting with city’s contractor architect and the people at Ford who worked on making Ford projects Leeds certified to see about the possibility of making the building Leeds certified. The architect submitted plans to the city and they said no. At one point, the architect could no longer speak with me because the head of the project wouldn’t allow it and would not return my calls. Eventually the building was done, with a much smaller pool than the community had before. The director of the project said if the group didn’t take the smaller pool, there would just plain old be no recreation center. One African American man would come to the meetings and say that there shouldn’t be a pool or a skating rink because African Americans don’t do that. I even found an African American Olympic skater to support the cause to no avail. Another community leader let me in on the secret that sometimes people are paid to go to community meeting and force certain views. My hair went gray early with such nonsense. While that administration was found to have incredible ethical problems, anyone doing community work would cite that the greater crimes were the ineptness of the staff he hired and their complete unresponsiveness to the community. It was as if the community wasn’t there at all.
So the finished building pool was built sloppily with no drains in the floor around the pool. I was always suspicious about the financing of the building and if it was all above board. When I was a kid, they were supposed to have expanded the old recreation center, but I heard that that money had been stolen back then. I was trying my hardest to make sure that wouldn’t happen again. At the opening the mayor noted that the pool was too small for someone his size. I laughed crazily out loud. There was nothing else to be said after so many years. After only one year, there was mildew in the drains of the pool where caulk was pool put in. The slippery, dirty floors of the locker rooms didn’t have the tile laid down. In the following years, the staff there tried still to dissuade the group (and many other children) from coming into the center and having the nerve to give them work by treating them like something out of a scary fairy tale. There were occasional bright spots – a couple of years there were great swim staff and there were a few staff members who with kindness of steel were always kind to our kids. The director tried to get the group to pay to use unused rooms in the building. The group took out the outside blanket classrooms again. Then the recreation center got a grant from a national swim organization to give swim lessons. Bizarrely, the swim lessons that used to be free now had a fee. The kids never wanted to go there they were treated so badly. Myself, the Porch staff and volunteers did their best to mediate. Detroit summers are too hot to not swim. Eventually, the group stopped trying to deal with the recreation center. Summers were spent at the community center and on field trips and walking to nearby parks and walking to the water park 2 miles away.
Then the community center finally collapsed financially. The community group stopped paying the heat, which the group dealt with. The kids said it didn’t matter and just kept their coats on. Many of them were used to months without heat. Then the center lost insurance. The adults decided that mattered. The building was repossessed by the bank for the bad debt caused by the city’s lack of repayment and the bad administration of the center by the staff there. The bank would not donate the center to our group unless we paid the back taxes, which of course we did not have. The bank went after the kind center director's personal assets. The bank instead left the building vacant, blighting the community.
Over several years, we noticed that kids were not doing well in school no matter what they did. So the assistant director started visiting the kids at school. Homework assignments were relayed to after school staff, parents were talked to when they came to pick up their kids. The group had struck gold. Kids understand the program right away. Adults (funders in particular) sometimes can’t grasp the fact that one consistent person can weave a child’s life into something amazing. The advocacy program was born with the help of the assistant director who was involved in the local parent group, a particularly helpful program officer and grant requirements that required and assisted the group in stepping up their game as an organization. This is explained in full in the section on advocacy.
Over the years, one of the hardest things to deal with has been the overarching what I call the “culture of failure”. In Detroit, for so many years there have been less and less opportunities for the people who live here, an often corrupt government that operates on a system of bribes and a network of relationships more akin to the third world, where survival is by any means necessary. This becomes a culture of failure. Failure is the rule, not the exception. Parents pass this down to their children often unconsciously. They will just not turn in the permission slip for tutoring. Make sure a kid has chores just when the bus for the field trip is leaving. There are many ways parents will make their children fail because they were denied opportunities themselves. Sometimes they don’t see the value in opportunities. Sometimes they deny their own children the opportunities because something in them still hurts from being held back. Even teachers pass on the culture of failure to their students. Some kids try and try and no matter what they do, the teacher finds fault with it. And so The Porch has in some ways fallen victim to the culture.
As of now, the Porch went back to where it started. No building, no staff. The Porch runs on a different pattern than other groups because of it roots. The Porch is about working around individual children’s needs. It’s not about kids fitting into a “program”. I saw the ginormous gap between research and the application of that research, and even the application of common sense in children’s programming. For several years I worked at a university center for children that was funded by a giant local foundation and watched as the world of self proclaimed super geniuses (professors) dealt with slices of children – research on this type of kid or that, a program for middle schoolers, one for pre-schoolers, for kids who liked technology, for kids who were gifted, studies for this group and that group. But whole children, that concept is not something that was being addressed.
When The Porch started, we didn’t understand the scope of what children need to be given to choose NOT to pull a readily available gun from their hands and decide that the most accessible entrepreneurial activity – the dangerous and sad career path of informal pharmaceutical/weapon sales – may not be their best choice.
The group certainly didn’t change some kids’ minds. All I can wonder, is if the group knew now what we know now and had the resources, could we have gotten them to change their paths? Sometimes, I thinks when they look at me; they think maybe they should have chosen a different path. For a few kids it’s a family business with no way out, but surely even then they can still work some community college classes around their busy underground economy schedules!
Even the most hardened criminals don’t want their kids to grow up with the violence and the lack of opportunities they had. They want to be treated with respect as parents, they need parenting advice like all parents and opportunities for their children. They want to go on field trips and to be able to communicate effectively with teachers.
I am sickened to see how resources are allocated to children. The Porch has always stretched every penny until it screamed to get the money directly towards children and to see how children are being treated is horrifying. It's time for adults to act like the grown-ups that kids expect them to be. For the Porch, it has been about helping children and families facing insurmountable odds and volunteers/staff/and meager resources filling in the needs, one child at a time. This means giving children a trained adult in their life that checks in on them and gives them anything they need. No, it’s not simply mentoring. No, it’s not for volunteers. It’s too simple for most adults to grasp, but kids get it right away. They know it’s what they need. Adults have been failing children all over earth and its time to own up to it. With insufficient resources, underpaid dedicated staff, and amazing volunteers, The Front Porch has been making childhood better for hundreds of children in a drug war zone, but has never been funded for all we need to offer at once.
The Porch has learned a lot about poverty and the urban underground economy, how people deal with the challenges it presents and how to help to lift children out of the cycle. Over the years, the other volunteers and I have been lucky to have been a part of some many children’s lives, often it seems, welcomed into their families. It is from them that I sat on my Porch and learned what is written in the pages following and to them I owe gratitude.
Continue to Chapter 2: Unmet Needs
*A few parts of this part are also in the book Where Do the Children Play Edited by Elizabeth Goodenough.
The Front Porch P.O. Box 24744 Detroit, Michigan 48224 USA firstname.lastname@example.org
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