On the Ground: Center of Brightmoor community life

Dennis Talbert holds out his hands like a divining rod, but he's not searching for water, oil, or precious metals. He mumbles a word over and over, coming from his mouth like beeps from a metal detector. The word gets louder as he approaches and becomes discernible--he's saying "money" over and over. He breaks out laughing and sits down for an interview.

Talbert's money detector is always switched on because that's what the institution he runs, the Brightmoor Community Center, needs.

In fact, that's why he reluctantly took the job as the center's interim director. Last year, he was on an annual trip he takes with old friends to the Final Four when he got a call from Rev. Larry Simmons (whom we profiled last week). "Dennis, we're broke," said Simmons, who had just come on as the interim director of the 84-year-old community center in Northwest Detroit.

When Talbert, then a member of the center's board of directors, returned to Detroit, the board convened to try to figure out how to get this pillar of the Brightmoor community out of the red.

They knew they would need a new director who could either raise funds or close the place, but everyone on the board was reluctant to take the job, including Talbert. But he agreed to take on the responsibility with the notion that it would be short term. That was in April.

"My goal at first was to close the place, gracefully and with mercy," says Talbert. But after praying about it, Talbert knew he couldn't do that and began to raise funds to help revive the center.

"The kids around here call me 'The Plug.' I'm very resourceful."

Since then, the center has worked to re-establish itself as a place with truly open arms to the community. According to Talbert, the center has three objectives: "We're here to provide quality programming to children and families to help them thrive and prosper, conduct quality outreach to let people know the center exists to serve them, and provide quality service."

The center's only paid workers are two custodians. Everything else is carried out by a staff of volunteers.

One of those volunteers is A.J. Harris, 18, whom Talbert says is critical to their efforts to keep the center's doors open. Harris originally came to the center looking for a job, but ended up becoming a faithful volunteer because he was treated by other volunteers like family on his first visit. "It's a special feeling you get helping people," says Harris, whose ambition is to attend culinary school.

The Brightmoor Community Center has always depended on the dedication of residents like Talbert and Harris. In fact, the center was built by residents, who collected money to buy materials and labored themselves to lay the stones and set the beams 84 years ago.

The center (its grounds and the building) takes up a whole city block at the corner of Burt Road and Lyndon Street across from Samuel Gompers Elementary-Middle School. The grounds consist of a butterfly habitat pocket park on the corner and a large back yard with a few raised garden beds that Talbert plans to program consistently this summer with performances by local musicians and the youth dance troupe that uses the center for its classes.

Within the building are a computer lab, a fully licensed commercial kitchen, and several multipurpose rooms where art classes, community meetings, and family gatherings are held. One popular use is for repasses, or gatherings of family and friends that occur after a funeral where the lives of the recently buried deceased are celebrated. Families rent the center for a fee if they can afford it, otherwise repasses are provided as a community service.

Community meetings are a frequent occurrence within the center's walls. The board of the Brightmoor Alliance meets there regularly. A meeting regarding the future of the 98 contiguous acres recently cleared of non-structural blight in Brightmoor recently was held at the community center, which we reported on last month. Talbert's personal vision for this area is to create a sculpture park there and invite artists from around the world to make pieces for it, and perhaps invite them to occupy some of the vacant homes.

Innovative ideas like this are born from the collaborative environment that is the Community Center. Recently, a Brightmoor Senior Council consisting of senior citizens from the neighborhood was formed there. They have been floating the idea of creating a senior village in Brightmoor to aid elderly residents who want to age in place.

Talbert estimates that the center is used by 70 seniors and 140 kids consistently (60-70 of whom regularly participate in the center's robust dance program run by volunteer instructor Roslyn English), plus many others during events like repasses and community meetings. A few weeks ago, the center hosted a Harvest Fest celebration that was attended by over 1,000 people. "We had a petting zoo, food, performances, and trunk-or-treating," says Talbert. On Dec, 21, the center will host a Winter Fest. Continue following On the Ground in Model D for details.

The center's influence reaches beyond its grounds. This year, the center funded a teacher training at Gompers Elementary-Middle School across the street "to create phenomenal classrooms by creating master teachers," says Talbert.

Talbert thinks the center, to maintain a quality level of programming and keep the building in working order, needs a budget of $750,000 to $1 million annually. Until he can get the place to that level of stability, he will continue his work raising money and coordinating quality programming.

A.J. Harris sums up what the center means to the community, saying, "If you come to the Brightmoor Community Center, you're going to be treated like family. There's a love about the building."

If you are interested in donating to the center or learning more about its programs, call 313-531-0305.

Matthew Lewis is project editor for the On the Ground series.

Photos by Aaron Mondry
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.