Shauna Johnson of Detroit gives Robby Eimers a fist bump near the Tumaini Center in Detroit as thanks for his work. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Detroit — The young boy smiles and looks into the eyes of the homeless man with bent shoulders and worn shoes.
He carefully places a scoop of potato salad next to the grilled hot dog and beans on the man’s plate.
“Would you like a cupcake and some chips and cookies?” he offers, as the man nods slowly and returns the smile.
The line of nearly 50 homeless people, patiently waiting for a meal in the blazing heat, stretches down a blighted section of Third Avenue at Martin Luther King Boulevard. Long tables laden with food, and a small grill lined with dozens of hot dogs, stand across the street from the Neighborhood Services Organization’s homeless shelter, the Tumaini Center.
Robby Eimers is determined to feed them all. He brings a van filled with food, clothing, toiletries, water and snacks every weekend from his home in New Haven. His grandmother drives.
Robby’s immediate goal: full stomachs. His long-range goal: end homelessness.
He is 12.
“These are my friends,” said Robby, a student at New Haven’s Endeavor Middle School, who does chores and spends birthday and Christmas money on the provisions. His grandmother also helps buy supplies, and some are donated by supporters.
“It makes me feel good to be able to help.”
Dwain Oliver, the man in the too-big, worn-out shoes, is among those grateful for his compassion.
“He’s doing an excellent job,” said Oliver, 56, sitting on the curb eating his meal next to a pile of garbage in the street. “These people who come down here are starving, and they need something like this. This child is mature beyond his years.”
Shauna Johnson, 42, who’s also homeless, could not stop praising Robby.
“It is amazing that a child so young would be out here shaking hands, talking to everyone and caring,” she said. “... Robby is right out there in front.”
Frank Molette, 40, who used to be homeless, comes to help his friend every weekend.
Molette stood beside Robby, keeping the line orderly and lifting cases of water. “Sometimes Robby calls me and asks my advice on certain things he wants to do. He’s always thinking of new ways to try to help.”
Another volunteer, Diane West, helped serve and hand out kind words. She teaches at South Lake Middle Schoolin St. Clair Shores, where Robby’s grandmother is a secretary. During the school year, students there make sandwiches for Robby’s weekly missions.
“Robby is remarkable and an inspiration, and I love that he’s working to change the stereotype of the city,” said West, 45, of Harper Woods.
Robby’s younger sister, Emma, 8, spends Fridays sorting clothing and helping in other ways, though she was not there to help serve meals Sunday.
“I think she is a little overwhelmed by the attention,” said mom Rachel Eimers. She helped her son bake and wrap 100 cookies the night before, and helped distribute food Sunday.
Even at his young age, Robby has experienced loss and hardship: His father died three years ago.
“Just watching him interact with people touches me deeply,” said Eimers, 32, who received a bachelor’s in criminal justice Saturday from the University of Phoenix. Robby placed his arm around her neck. She turned to him. “You’re so sweet. I just love you so much,” she said.
That love was multiplied last week, when Robby and Emma were honored at NSO’s Inspired Life Awards ceremony, where they got a standing ovation.
“I want to end homelessness,” Robby told the crowd.
“There is a phenomenally huge spirit in this little body,” said Sheilah Clay, CEO of the Neighborhood Services Organization. She estimates about 19,000 homeless people live in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck.
Clay said Robby and his sister created the Eimers Foundation. Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera donated some Triple Crown shirts and a signed baseball to the foundation. The Detroit Red Wings donated shirts.
Robby and Emma also created a Facebook page, www.facebook.com/theeimersfoundation, to promote the Eimers Foundation and his mission. The family doesn’t seek donations, but site visitors sometimes give food, toiletries and other items.
Robby began that mission shortly after accompanying his grandmother, Cindy Kostukoff, and her friend to drop off clothing at the Tumaini shelter about four years ago.
“The whole thing only took a few minutes,” Kostukoff said. “But on the drive back home, Robby was in the back seat, and he was unusually quiet. I turned around to look at him and asked what was wrong.”
His response sowed the seed.
“I never knew there were so many homeless people,” Robby said. “We have to do something.”
Kostukoff said he would ask neighbors if he could wash their cars and do other jobs, putting his money in a jar in the kitchen.
“We started going down once a month, but Robby said that wasn’t enough,” said Kostukoff. “Then we’d go twice a month and that still wasn’t enough for him, so now we go every Saturday or Sunday.”
Many of his friends live in nearby abandoned buildings.
When Kostukoff told him developer Dan Gilbert’s job was to eliminate blight in the city, Robby became concerned.
“He said, ‘What about my friends?’ she said. “‘Where are they going to go?’” Kostukoff said her grandson promptly emailed Gilbert. Twice.
“He told him he understood the need to remove blight, but asked that he find someplace else for the homeless men and women to live,” said Kostukoff.
Gilbert, who’s chairman of Quicken Loans and leads the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, passed the email along to Leslie Andrews, director of community relations and corporate partnerships for Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans.
“Robby wanted one of the buildings in downtown Detroit to create a homeless shelter,” said Andrews. “He didn’t think we were moving quickly enough, so he emailed again. I told him we couldn’t give him a building downtown, but that I could introduce him to the CEO of Neighborhood Services, which opened a new center to house the formerly homeless in the Bell Building.”
His perseverance paid off.
Robby and Emma toured the building and after meeting Clay, they soon will have office space in the building.
“They now are part of the NSO family,” said Clay.