Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan talks about a six-day project fighting blight in a 300-block area around Denby High School. Organizers hope to board up 300 vacant houses and remodel 50 homes and finish the $1.4 million renovation of Skinner Playfield. Evan Carter, The Detroit News


Detroit — One day last year, Michele Kelly thought to herself that if she didn’t make a change in her life, she would die at her desk.

Her work as a divorce lawyer at the Northville law firm Kelly & Kelly P.C. put Kelly, 60, in a “very stressful position.” She wasn’t sleeping well and had health and personal issues. So she decided to take a break from her career.

Last year after volunteering at Life Remodeled’s project at Osborn High School, Kelly attended a movie that highlighted the group’s work in Osborn and met the nonprofit’s CEO, Chris Lambert.

Kelly told Lambert she wanted to take her life in another direction and during a lunch meeting, said she wanted to recruit Northville residents to help with Life Remodeled’s project at Skinner Playfield this summer.

“Instead of dismantling people’s lives, this does something that saves people’s lives,” Kelly said. “This has given me a new outlook on life.”

Monday, Kelly was among the volunteers who turned out for the start of a six-day project aimed at fighting blight in a 300-block area around Denby High School. Organizers hope to board up 300 vacant houses and remodel 50 homes.

Workers also are finishing the $1.4 million renovation of the Skinner Playfield, begun in June, into a community park.

Kelly started the organization Northville Stands with Detroit and has headed up a group of five women for the last six months who have pulled together three home remodeling projects involving 100 volunteers in the Yorkshire Woods neighborhood near Denby.

“We had teens from Northville and the teens from Denby painting a garage together,” Kelly said. “When we finished our projects these people all hugged each other goodbye, and you just don’t see that happening.”

Lambert embraced Kelly’s idea of getting suburban communities to partner with the group in Detroit and reached out to Westland Mayor Bill Wild. Through word of mouth, the nonprofit has eight other suburban communities on board this year.

“This is a city built for 1.8 million people and now has 650,000 people, and so the vacancies and the amount of blight are beyond personal responsibility of Detroiters,” Lambert said. “It is essential to have outside participation from the suburbs; Detroit can’t do it alone as a city.”

Livonia Mayor Dennis Wright said helping Detroit warmed his heart and that he was a firm believer that the condition of Michigan’s largest city affects the entire state. Lowering crime and insurance rates in Detroit were two specific ways he said would benefit his city as well.

“The way Detroit goes is the way the state goes,” he said. “(Mayor) Mike Duggan can’t do it all on his own.”

Kelly talked about opening up communications with the people of Denby and said outside volunteers have to respect those they work with in Detroit.

“I wouldn’t want people coming to my community and saying, ‘we’re going to paint all your houses in Northville purple because we know better,’ ” Kelly said.

Duggan echoed Kelly and said Detroiters are looking for residents from neighboring communities to partner with them.

“We aren’t looking for suburbanites to come in and leave the next day, we’re looking for a partnership,” Duggan said while touring the construction at Skinner Playfield.

Kelly hasn’t ruled out going back to practicing law, but said she’s probably going to do more projects in Detroit in the near future.

“When you’re a divorce attorney, half the people aren’t happy to see you,” she said. “Here I just greeted everyone getting off of bus (from volunteering at Denby), and everyone was smiling.”

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Twitter: @evancarter_94

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