Focus: HOPE blight removal project kicks off

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — A massive blight removal project in a 100-block area on Detroit’s west side kicked off Thursday morning, with thousands of volunteers from across the country and Metro Detroit, hitting the streets to beautify the area.

Austin Colon, 17, left, and Charlie Neuendorff, 18, right, both from St. Paul Lutheran Church in La Grange, Texas, rake up and shovel away weeds on Lawton Street not far from the Focus: HOPE campus in Detroit on July 16, 2015.

Grabbing rakes, shovels and garbage bags, adult and student volunteers quickly got to work on Lawton Street near Linwood and the Lodge, pulling weeds, dead shrubs and grass and removing large boulders from public alleyways and from the fronts of homes.

Over the next three days, more than 10,000 volunteers including residents, business owners and community organizations are partnering with Focus: HOPE on its “Keep It 100!” project, a beautification effort around its campus on Oakland Boulevard.

Visitors to the city attending the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Youth Gathering conference in Detroit were out on Lawton Street helping Thursday morning, clearing away trash, boarding up vacant properties, planting flowers and rain gardens, and cleaning and mowing side lots.

Clusters of students from Omaha, Nebraska, got down on their hands and knees to pull weeds and grass from the end of a driveway of a two-story brick Tudor home, only one of two abandoned structures on Lawton Street.

Johnny Albers, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Omaha, said he came to Detroit with his church Kountze Memorial and had some idea of what Detroit’s struggles were.

“Before Detroit had filed for bankruptcy, I was thinking the city didn’t have the income it needed and wasn’t able to support the city. Every city has its good bad and ugly. Coming here it doesn’t surprise me to see this stuff,” Albers said of the blight on the street. “I wanted to come to Detroit to do God’s work and make a difference.”

Early in the morning, in a staging area near Fenkell and the Lodge, volunteers from Quicken Loans and assembled packages of seeds, two pounds of potting soil and instructions so students can plants black-eyed Susan perennials across the entire 100-block area.

Josephine Dare, executive assistant for Focus: HOPE CEO William Jones Jr., said the event kicked off Thursday with a rally for several hundred volunteers who dispersed into areas of the project. Dare, a master gardener, said pounds of seeds were donated to use in the project.

“The whole idea is the 100 block, since the flowers seed themselves, bingo! They will be everywhere,” Dare said.

Mary-Catherine Ballard, a 20-year-old Eastern Michigan University student from Ohio, worked as a volunteer on Thursday, saying she was trained to provide first-aid and CPR for anyone who needed assistance during the project. Ballard found the opportunity through

“I am really excited to get involved with this. I didn’t think it was going to be this big. I do want to educate myself on the city of Detroit. There are lots of issues the community talks about but I don’t know what they are and I want to see this first hand,” she said.

Other volunteers came closer from home.

“We want to make a difference in any way whether it’s bagging flowers, boarding or anything else in between. It’s just to make a difference,” said Joe Dudek, a 34-year-old Troy resident who works for Quicken Loans in business development in Detroit and volunteered for the initiative.

Focus: HOPE has assessed each property in the target area. Chief Executive Jones says “there will be a renewed sense of pride in the neighborhood” when the project is completed.

The human and civil rights organization was founded in 1968 after riots widened the rift between Detroit’s black and white residents.