Resilient Neighborhoods: Ground Zero invites youth to collide with Jesus, community, and opportunity

If you ask Micah Williams, youth director at Central Detroit Christian (CDC), what he loves most about his job, he immediately knows the answer. It’s his opportunity to share a relationship with young people that may positively affect the rest of their lives. 

As a pastor’s son who grew up “doing the church thing,” Williams says he presented as a young teenager who had it all together, but on the inside, there was brokenness. Under his carefully polished exterior, he was navigating loss, anxiety, depression, and difficulty.

But while at summer camp between his freshman and sophomore year, Williams experienced a “head-on collision” with Jesus that transformed how he saw himself and where he’s been drawing his worth ever since. 

“I was like, no, he doesn't just love my dad, he doesn't just love my mom, not just my siblings. Jesus actually loves me,” he says, “so much so that he died for me so I can have this relationship with Him forever.” From that moment on, the 24-year-old says, he couldn’t help but share his experience.

“I have to tell everyone I know about this good news that has given me life and joy, peace, and true fulfillment that I couldn’t find in relationships, sports, awards, or anything else,” he says.

Through CDC’s Ground Zero program, he and his wife, Megan Williams, assistant youth director, work to build relationships with students who live in Detroit’s North End area, encouraging them in friendships, new experiences, and healthy habits, all while sharing their faith.

“Ground Zero is a place where we want to see middle school and high school students in central Detroit come into collision with Jesus and opportunities that will change their life forever,” Micah Williams says. “Opportunities when it comes to college readiness, physical fitness, nutrition, those things can change their life forever. But ultimately, a collision with Jesus, we believe, changes their eternity.”
Megan and Micah Williams. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Williams, originally from Grand Rapids and Lansing, came to Detroit in 2019 to study communications at Wayne State University, where he met Megan Williams.  She had just finished an internship at CDC, where she'd been volunteering since the sixth grade. The faith-based nonprofit works to empower residents in the 48202 and 48206 zip codes and create positive opportunities through education, employment, and economic development. When Williams shared that he felt God calling him to serve youth in Detroit, she invited him to get involved in CDC programs, a participation that led to his internship and full-time hire.

Leading up to the 2021-2022 school year, the new youth directors faced the challenge of reaching nearby teens meaningfully coming out of the pandemic. During the last weeks of summer break, their team knocked on doors throughout central Detroit neighborhoods, passing out over 2000 flyers and telling families about the after-school and Friday night program, which today collaborates with CDC's Breakthrough Enrichment curriculum.

Breakthrough Enrichment engages elementary (Mondays and Wednesdays) and middle school students (Tuesdays and Thursdays) from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., offering homework help, literacy classes, health and wellness education, free time in the gymnasium, bible study, and small group discussions (for middle schoolers). It includes a meal and transportation, which are “must haves” for all programming, says Micah Williams.

At CDC, the Williamses are part of a team supporting students throughout the week, which includes youth and family coordinator Kyle Lake, sports coordinator Deshawn Lott, education director Stephanie Avery, part-time staff, and volunteers. 

On Friday nights, the Ground Zero program welcomes, on average, 80-85 students from 6th to 12th grade. Students come from Thirkell Elementary Middle School, Durfee Elementary Middle School, Northwestern High School, Central High School, and several University Prep Schools. Middle school students come early for gym time, while high school students stay late. Over 20 volunteers, often from local churches, prepare and serve a meal everyone enjoys together. The Williamses lead a community game, bible teaching, small group discussions, and worship. 

Martaevius Collier, an 8th-grader at Thirkell Elementary, recalls meeting Micah Williams when he was out canvassing and Martaevius was returning from school. When Williams talked to his mom and invited him to Ground Zero, he liked the young man's high energy and the idea of sports, games, food, and friends. He and his older brothers started coming to the program that first year. Today, his younger sister regularly attends on days geared for elementary students. 

Martaevius Collier. Photo by Nick Hagen.
Martaevius enjoys the loud passion in Williams’ voice when he’s preaching and likes that he apologizes to people, something he doesn't hear often from adults, he says. He calls him a father figure, sharing that his own father is no longer living. When he and Williams have one-on-one talks, or when Williams leads small group discussions with him and his friends, separate from the girls who come to the program, he appreciates that time. He says he finds it easy to make friends at CDC by just being himself.  

“This is where I feel like home,” he says. 

Providing male mentorship is a focus for Williams. Every Monday, he spends time with a group of 15-20 male students at Thirkell Elementary, a close partner of CDC. On the students' lunch hour, he hosts open talks about how to respect women, tie a tie, manage time, set goals, etc. At CDC, Williams says they also discuss mental wellness, heart fitness, healthy cooking, and methods of working out.

Martaevius likes spending regular time in the CDC’s gym, especially playing basketball with his friends. When it comes to his studies, he enjoys math but says he’s glad to get after-school support with other homework. He dreams about one day having a football career but says his goal is to get into a good high school like Cass Tech and maybe attend Oakland University.

Helping students grow their reading and writing skills is a passion for CDC’s education director, Stephanie Avery. In her literacy classes, students have written many stories the nonprofit has published over the years. Her students are currently working in groups to create their own comic books, each with a different theme, which Avery says will be in book form for Christmas. 

She encourages her students to use their experiences to engage with literature because it gives them a greater interest and deeper connection to writing.

“When they rewrite and talk about literature, especially when they have a real-life connection... you know, because these are their stories, and they're coming from their journals, dreams, or aspirations,” she says. “I tell them, you don't have to have the whole story on day one. You build on it. Then, when you work with a team, you begin to share your vision, and they add to it.”
Stephanie Avery works with students to create published books. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Finding strength within the community is a theme at CDC, along with teamwork, which is emphasized through the many sports and games students are encouraged to play.  

Brooklynn Allen, an 8th grader at U Prep Science & Math Middle School, has been coming to the nonprofit since she was a kindergartner brought by her aunt. In the Ground Zero program, she's made new friends, some of whom live near her house, but she's not had the opportunity to meet, she says, especially during COVID-19. She enjoys discovering new activities and playing sports at CDC, particularly tennis, which she describes as difficult but worth the challenge. 

“I didn't know regular people could play tennis. It was basically shocking,” she says.  “I thought it was just a sport that people [who are] famous can really play.”

Brooklynn says that Ground Zero is about openness; she feels she can talk to any staff about what’s happening in her life. 

“Micah and Megan, they come to check on me,” she says. “If they feel like my day is going bad, they ask, what’s the problem or what’s happening?”  Having one-on-one conversations where they also tell her about their lives has helped create a close bond. She says what they’ve shared about their faith has comforted her.
Brooklynn Allen. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“It helps me know that I could come to Jesus whenever I'm going through something very bad,” she says. “Because, you know, we really need Jesus in our lives to help us with things we're struggling with and have him on our side. Some people say pray for them, but they’re not following Him and his lead. It’'s very complicated for my age group, I believe."
She refers to the Williamses as a “second set of parents” and says that having them choose to be consistent in her life and teach her about Jesus means a lot.  

Consistency is the word Megan Williams also uses. It's important for all the youth, but especially girls at this age, she says, to have a relational connection with someone who knows the specific things they’re going through.

“What's special about walking with some of these girls for years now is just being able to be that consistent person in their life who understands their situation as best as I can,” she says. “If you keep showing up, even if they want to fight…or leave…or tell you they don't ever want to come back…when they come back, and see that you're still there… I think it just offers them something they don't see in the rest of the world: people being consistent and loving even when it's hard, and loving even when they don't love you back.”

She says many of the youth who come to the program lack things to do that are bringing good into their lives. Over the years, students have come back to share that it was at CDC that they learned to socialize and build healthy relationships, she says, and where they found hope during challenging times. What these young people are discovering and how they grow in the program is more than a “right now thing," she says. 

To 14-year-old A'Niyah Lowe, a 9th-grader at Cass Tech, "one big family" is what there is to discover. She says she feels spending time with her chosen family over the last few years has brought her closer to God. She looks forward to Friday nights when the room is packed with teenagers whose cell phones are deep in their pockets rather than their hands. When it’s time to worship, she and her friends have their favorites: whatever Megan is singing and raising their voices to “Graves into Gardens," a worship song by Brandon Lake et al. 

You turn mourning to dancing
You give beauty for ashes
You turn shame into glory
You're the only one who can

She also likes it when everyone in the room gets low and rises with energy, singing Maverick City Music's lyrics, “Get up, get up, get up. Get up outta that grave!”

"It's an amazing place. We have fun here," she says.

In small groups, A'Niya sometimes talks and asks questions or sits and listens, depending on her mood. Now that she’s a high schooler who gets to stay an hour later, she’s finding the conversations with her peers following bible teachings can run deep, and she's learning a lot. Recently, her group talked in-depth about freedom, she says, both on a spiritual level and an earthly one. She finds it helpful to talk about how Jesus's teachings can relate to her own life.
A'Niyah Lowe. Photo by Nick Hagen.

In the future, A’ Niyah thinks about attending nursing school and becoming a pediatric nurse, an interest fueled by her love for children and the TV show "Grey’s Anatomy." She plans to continue coming to Ground Zero through high school to build the support she needs to keep dreaming.

“I honestly love Micah and Megan. They've helped me overcome some things," she says. "Even some personal things I was too scared to talk about, they helped me overcome.”

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series examining how Detroit residents and community development organizations work together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

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Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller