Life Remodeled founder and president Chris Lambert shows off work on the lab at Cody High's Academy of Medicine and Community Health. Neighbors will provide 'sweat equity.' (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Rebuilding Detroit’s blighted neighborhoods requires more than paint, hammers and lawn mowers in the hands of well-meaning volunteers. It needs buy-in from the people who live there to make the investment last.
That’s the philosophy of Chris Lambert, the tireless founder and president of Life Remodeled, the nonprofit that’s mobilizing 15,000 volunteers starting today for a six-day effort to transform Cody High School, two more schools and the surrounding neighborhoods.
And it’s why several hundred of the volunteers will be from the Cody Rouge neighborhoods themselves, including Cody students and residents from 150 block clubs in northwest Detroit.
They will stand side by side with executives and engineers from General Motors Co., mortgage bankers from Quicken Loans and church leaders from across Metro Detroit, together transforming neighborhood decay and impoverished schools into places of hope and pride, Lambert said.
“We are able to bring people together from a variety of backgrounds that don’t normally do projects together that are now doing them, and that makes all the difference in the world,” Lambert said.
“We all bringing our talents to the table and we learn from each other. I like to say it’s not just the residents of Detroit who are going to experience a life remodeled — it’s every volunteer, including myself. We are all learning to love each other more and understand each other more.”
With the help of thousands of volunteers and donors, Life Remodeled plans to provide major renovations to Cody, light face-lifts to nearby Mann and Henderson elementary schools and the surrounding community at a projected cost of $5.5 million.
Projects at Cody include a new roof, electrical repairs, landscaping and the installation of a new football field. The school will get a medical simulation lab, a leadership lab and a high-tech science, technology, engineering, math lab.
Cody includes three smaller programs that operate within the building, with a total of about 1,000 students.
Volunteers will remove brush and garbage and add plants and flowers on more than 100 surrounding blocks. The work will include demolishing 10 abandoned homes, boarding up at least 100 other abandoned homes and remodeling at least 20 students’ homes.
Kenyetta Campbell, executive director of the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance, said her organization’s role is dedicated to making sure the community is part of the day. Her group identified houses around the schools that need to be boarded up and demolished and those that need renovations.
Cody Rouge has 35,000 residents, including 13,000 children up to age 18 — the second-largest concentration of youth in the city, Campbell said.
The area also has one of Detroit’s highest rates of crime committed against young people. In a two-mile radius of Cody, 14 homicides have been reported since April, according to Detroit Police crime statistics.
Campbell said about 3,000 residents have registered, and she expects even more residents to jump in once the project is underway.
“We are recruiting residents from this area, so there is true collaboration between the city and suburbs. It’s boots on the ground, commanding work stations and helping people,” she said.
Mike Stobak, vice president in charge of the education group at Barton Malow, the project’s general contractor, said the Life Remodeled approach differs from other volunteer projects he has worked on, in which folks from outside the city swoop in and do what’s needed.
“The expectations that Life ReModeled has for community involvement is different. It’s a sweat equity thing,” Stoback says.
“It’s a ‘this is going to help your neighborhood and we expect you to be involved in it.’ That is very refreshing that people are taking ownership of this,” he said. “It’s great for companies to come in and fix something, but if the people don’t take ownership of it, then it’s not maintained.”
Corporations such as General Motors are playing a big role in the project. GM is sending 3,100 employee volunteers; Quicken Loans will provide about 1,800.
Mark Reuss, executive vice president of global product development at GM, said it’s the single largest volunteer effort by the automaker’s employees for an event in his 30 years with the company.
GM is donating the use of 55 full-size pickups and SUVs, and employees held bake sales and auctions to raise $75,000. Reuss said he is matching the money. And the commitment from GM will continue beyond August, he said.
“We are going to keep doing this every year,” Reuss said. “We are serious about changing the system in place and putting in one that works to get the growth back.”
Michelle Parker, principal of Cody’s Academy of Medicine and Community Health, said more than 1,000 students and staff members have signed up to help transform the school and neighborhood.
Cody student Peter Robinson, a 17-year-old who will be a senior this fall, said in the last two years he has never looked up to his school or seen it as an inspiring place to be.
But last week, as construction workers laid concrete for a new grand entrance at the school and some fellow students began priming a set of doors for a mural, Robinson said the effort to transform the school into a place of hope has given him reason to think differently.
“I feel great now. It’s a new look. People can see anything can come back up, no matter what,” Robinson said.