A once-blighted Fitzgerald home is finding new life as an early childhood learning center

On a sunny Saturday in June, Sandra Davis and three of her grandchildren are checking out the goings-on along Prairie Street in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood. A block party is in full swing: food is sizzling on grills, stands are set up for activities like face-painting and hula-hooping, and there is a trackless train offering rides to kids.


At the center of the day's activity is a buttermilk yellow house with a bright orange door, where people keep meandering in and out of in small groups. Not long ago, the building sat abandoned, a neighborhood blemish; now it’s getting a second life as an early childhood learning center and community hub owned and operated by a local nonprofit called Brilliant Detroit.


“It’s beautiful. The neighborhood helped build this,” says Davis, who grew up in the area and moved back three years ago.


She sees the new Brilliant Detroit house as a sign of neighborhood resurgence and is excited about the potential it holds for neighborhood children like her grandkids.


“This one right there needs help with tutoring,” she says, pointing to one of her granddaughters. “It’s going to have a great impact.”


The Brilliant idea

The Brilliant Detroit neighborhod hub in Fitzgerald was formerly a vacant home. Photo by Nick Hagen.


The new Fitzgerald house, which celebrated its grand opening on June 8, is the latest in a series of innovative neighborhood child learning centers set up by Brilliant Detroit in the city over the last several years.


“Brilliant Detroit is an organization that helps to create kid success neighborhoods, where kids and families have what they need to be school-ready, reading at grade level by third grade, and healthy,” says Cindy Eggleton, the organization’s co-founder and CEO. “And how we do that is we create neighborhood hubs out of houses that we repurpose to bring in activities programs and fellowship.”


Brilliant Detroit's services are geared toward children 8 years old and younger and their parents. Programming is evidence-based and holistic family support is an integral part of the nonprofit's efforts.


The organization got off the ground three-and-a-half years ago through the joint efforts of Eggleton and Michigan philanthropists Carolyn and Jim Bellinson, who among other things brought investment, early childhood, and community expertise to the project.


Prior to her work with Brilliant Detroit, Eggleton spent two decades running her own strategy and communications company, CERB Associates, and later oversaw education programming for the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. She changed course a few years back, however, because she wanted to work on a transformational project that was neighborhood-focused and embraced local residents as decision-makers.


The idea for rehabbing old houses came from Jim Bellinson who realized that vacant homes could be used to bring early childhood and family centers directly into Detroit neighborhoods.


In addition to its focus on young children and families, Brilliant Detroit has also adopted a decidedly neighborhood-centered approach. The organization sets up houses only in neighborhoods where invited and works with local leaders on locating and renovating homes. After an agreement is reached with neighbors, Brilliant Detroit commits to running a house in a neighborhood for three years. Local residents are also instrumental in determining programming.


While there is a core set of activities based on family literacy and tutoring, the Brilliant Detroit curriculum is adapted to meet the needs of specific communities.


“Our neighborhoods in Southwest they need ESL, so we offer ESL,” says Eggleton. “Some of the neighborhoods have a heavier need for GEDs, so we have that.”


A similar grassroots mindset comes into play for funding as well. The nonprofit was started with seed money from the Bellinsons and about 75 percent of its current funding comes from individual donors and 25 percent from foundations. Brilliant Detroit has also pledged to cap financial support from foundations at a maximum of 50 percent to maintain the integrity of their funding.


The first Brilliant Detroit house opened in the city’s Cody Rouge neighborhood in early 2016. Although it serviced only 50 families in these early days, the organization has grown exponentially in the intervening years. Today there are Brilliant Detroit homes in seven different Detroit neighborhoods, including Fitzgerald, and the nonprofit serves over 4,000 people. And last year, working with 85 partners, it provided 32,000 hours of programming. Looking to the future, Brilliant Detroit expects to have a total of 11 centers up and running by the end of the year and ultimately wants to set up a total of 24 citywide.


Making a house in Fitzgerald


Several factors come into play when Brilliant Detroit thinks about bringing one of its learning centers into a neighborhood. In addition to an invitation from residents, the nonprofit also considers the density of kids in the area, how needed its services are there, and whether there is an established neighborhood structure to build on.


According to data collected by Brilliant Detroit, Fitzgerald has around 700 youth between the ages of zero and 9 years old, out of a total population of roughly 7,000 people. There’s also a high ratio of single-parent families in the area—a little over 81 percent of the families in the neighborhood—and a median family income of about $24,700. The neighborhood is also receiving a lot of attention and economic support through the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project, a city-led initiative dedicated to transforming publicly owned vacant land and buildings in the area into community assets.


In deciding to come to Fitzgerald, the nonprofit was strongly influenced by the strong presence of multiple block clubs. Ultimately neighborhood residents chose a two-story, 2,892-square-foot home that dates back to 1926 to be the site of Fitzgerald’s new Brilliant Detroit house. The house was transferred to Brilliant Detroit from Century Forward, the nonprofit created by the Fitz Forward Development Group.

Located at 16919 Prairie Street, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away from
Ella Fitzgerald Park, a new 2.5-acre recreation area tied to the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project and very close to the new development on McNichols that includes the Detroit Sip coffee house and the new community center Neighborhood HomeBase.


Darnetta Banks, a neighborhood resident who's managing the Fitzgerald house, is astonished by the facility's transformation from an abandoned building to its current state.


“What did it look like? I can’t begin to tell you, like a haunted house that was in need of demolition,” she says. “Everyone who’s seeing it now can’t believe it’s the same house that it was several months ago.”


Banks, a longtime Detroit resident, lives on Prairie Street a few blocks away from the new Fitzgerald learning center. Prior to coming on board to run the Brilliant Detroit learning center in her own neighborhood, she worked with another of the nonprofit's sites in Brightmoor.


Darnetta Banks is a neighborhood resident who's now managing the Fitzgerald house. Photo by Nick Hagen
So what can Fitzgerald residents expect from the Brilliant Detroit house now that it's open?
Classes on parenting, child literacy, infant massage, cooking, and nutrition are in the works, and there are plans to offer children's activities and yoga and Zumba. The nonprofit is also working with the community to determine long-term programming at the site. Beyond that toys and meals will be available at the house, which will be open Monday through Friday.


“I am in awe. I cannot begin to express the gratitude that we have as a community. We have met on multiple occasions," Banks says. "This is a vision we had on our own and we are very, very ecstatic about it opening up in the Fitzgerald community.”


A neighborhood-based project


Brilliant Detroit's new Fitzgerald project has attracted the interest of neighborhood leaders, many of whom were present at the grand opening earlier this month.


Lola Holton, president of the Fitzgerald Community Council, sees the new early learning and family center as a welcome destination for youth in the community.


"Some of the kids don't have anything to do. [Now] they can come in and get tutoring one-on-one or they can play house, things that the kids used to do to develop themselves and their skills. This is what makes [healthy] adults," she says.


Lucius Conway is a Fitzgerald resident and community activist who owns several small businesses including the Detroit Drip clothing line. An active volunteer with Brilliant Detroit, he's played an important role in raising awareness about the project, going door to door to tell his neighbors about the new early learning center. Conway was intrigued when he heard about the nonprofit's efforts, because he'd been involved in a similar project working with disenfranchised youth in Florida around the turn of the millennium.


He feels there's a deep need for this kind of work in Fitzgerald, especially for children whose parents may be struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues. And beyond that, he believes that Brilliant Detroit's work has the potential to bring about transformative change in Fitzgerald and beyond.


“There’s a saying: Be the change you want to see in the world," he says. "And this house is an opportunity to be that change in this one space, an opportunity to change the world by changing a life, one person at a time.”

This article is part of a series where we revisit stories from our On the Ground installment and explore new ones in the Live6 area. It is supported by the Kresge Foundation.

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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