Summer in the City celebrates 15 summers of paint, play

Since 2002, the nonprofit has changed the way suburban and Detroit teens volunteer in the city

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News
  • Summer in the City operates 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays during eight weeks in the summer
  • Volunteers have amassed over 175,000 hours of community service
  • Over 5,500 people have volunteered since 2002
  • The youth enrichment program includes seven camps in the city

Karin Richardson was driving down East Warren when she passed 22 teens hanging on ladders, painting bright flowers on the side of the AAA Laundromat. She immediately did a U-turn.

Volunteer Caitlin Hannigan, 16, of Birmingham chats with Winter Long, 5, about her origami project at the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit.

Stepping out of her SUV, the pastor of Saving Grace International Ministries in Detroit admired the wall.

“My goodness. This is beautiful,” she says, smiling.

Nineteen-year-old Tess Parr — her shorts, T-shirt and glasses splattered in greens, purples and blues — set down her brush to explain the group was only a slice of the Summer in the City volunteers scattered throughout Detroit working on painting, planting and youth enrichment projects that sweltering Tuesday. As paint director, Parr spearheaded nine murals teens have painted across the city this summer.

“Wow,” Richardson says. “We need stuff like this to uplift the neighborhood.” She had one question: “Could you paint the day care at my church down the street?”

It’s a common request for the nonprofit celebrating its 15th summer of organizing teens and college students from Metro Detroit to engage in impactful projects and connect with the city. Each summer, more Detroit teens throw on the volunteer T-shirt with the city skyline embedded in a sun and join their suburban peers to mentor kids and beautify buildings.

“Summer in the City has redefined what community is about,” says Karla Williamson, a Detroit Parks and Recreation district supervisor. “It has left a visual inspiration for those who participate, and it has enhanced areas that are prone to blight. When people have an active role in the development of something, they’re more likely to protect it.”

Ben Falik, a curly-haired 34-year-old often described as “a ball of energy,” co-founded Summer in the City in 2002. He calls it his “best bad idea.”

“I remember thinking one point in the first summer, ‘Oh we should do this again next year,’ ” he says. “It was just kind of a stumble — one of those spaghetti noodles that stuck to the wall.”

The first summer

Falik returned home to Bloomfield Hills after his freshman year at Columbia University. That summer, he and two friends, Michael Goldberg and Neil Greenberg, volunteered in the city, lending a helping hand to Motor City Blight Busters, Focus: HOPE and The Greening of Detroit.

“Somewhere along the line, we had the right combination of energy and naïveté to think we could make an organization out of our experiences,” Falik says.

The 20-year-olds started recruiting their friends to weed gardens and demolish abandoned homes. The trio had relatives who lived or worked in Detroit, but that wasn’t the case for their suburban friends, some whose families bragged about “never coming to Detroit.”

“A generation of students around my age were graduating high school and had this city that was not far away, but for any number of different reasons, had little connection with it,” says Goldberg, 34, now a student life director at the Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit. .”

Falik says that Metro Detroiters are good at building barricades, sometimes literally.

“There is a difference between being a Detroiter and ‘Detroiter.’ We want to honor that and also not let it really put a wall between us,” he says.

Community service is not a “silver bullet,” he adds, but it can be a “formative point of entry” for youth to embrace Detroit.

Painting, planting in the D

Fast-forward 15 summers, and SITC has “turned into a machine,” Goldberg says.

For eight weeks, every Tuesday through Friday at 9 a.m., about 130 volunteers ship out from eight high school carpool sites as far west as Ann Arbor and east as Grosse Pointe. Volunteers (who must be at least 14) also gather in the city at Clark Park and Detroit Renaissance High School. They then pick one of the three P’s — “Paint, Plant or Play” — to fill the next five hours.

In the early years, volunteers headed to Glazer Elementary School, now a charter school, to play games and do arts and crafts with a few dozen Detroit kids. The youth enrichment program has since grown into seven sites that provide free and low-cost summer camp for 250 kids.

The number of volunteers also has exploded from a handful to a roster of nearly 1,000. The first Finale Friday — marking the last volunteer day of the summer with a project and barbecue — had 30 volunteers who filled a dumpster from a demolition. At this year’s Finale Friday on Aug. 12, organizers anticipate 500 campers and 1,000 volunteers who will partner with the Detroit Red Wings to paint a hockey-themed mural at the Jack Adams Memorial Arena.

“It’s this really massive operation that three people in its early years could never have taken on,” Goldberg says.

Falik, who directs the Detroit chapter of the nonprofit Repair the World, has stepped back from his role as SITC director, but he’s still behind the scenes, advising the co-directors and 45 “Crew” leaders in their early 20s. He also teaches a service learning Wayne State University class, where undergrads lead SITC projects.

“This iteration of Summer in the City is beyond what my original hopes and dreams were,” Falik says. “The secret sauce has been the do-ocracy” — a term he coined. “Young people are the leaders we’ve been waiting for, and instead of waiting for them, we give them a different color shirt and activate (them).”

Summer in the City volunteers Gabby Dorr, left, 16, Farmington Hills and Amy Killingsworth, 15, of Grosse Pointe Park paint a floral mural on the side of the AAA Laundromat on East Warren Avenue in Detroit on July 26.

‘Fun, flexible and fulfilling’

Volunteers have racked up over 175,000 hours of community service since 2002. This summer alone, they amassed over 8,000 hours. Besides high schoolers seeking service opportunities, SITC attracts volunteers from companies like Quicken Loans and Moosejaw. They’re welcome to come one day, or every day.

“We would have students who would be like, ‘I’m just going to come this day,’ ” Goldberg says. “Then, all the sudden, they’re there for a week or a month or they don’t miss a day all summer.”

Parr, the paint director from Troy, has volunteered every summer since she turned 14. Six summers later, she says SITC is the reason she chose to attend Wayne State and study urban studies — and it’s Falik’s “do-ocracy” philosophy that motivates her to come back.

For Will McDowell, 27, a business analyst at Detroit Labs, SITC is the reason he decided to live and work in Detroit after graduating from the University of Michigan. The West Bloomfield native considered film school in Los Angeles, but becoming the SITC co-director in 2009 — when Falik passed him the torch — influenced him to stay.

“No one else in the whole world would have given a 20-year-old this leadership position over this entire crew of volunteers,” he says. “I was responsible for sledgehammers, cars, cement, bricks, building things and watching over hundreds of little children … it was one of the most memorable times of my life.”

Though this summer’s co-director, Isaac Piepszowski, 22,

grew up in Detroit’s East English Village, he says SITC exposed him to “a whole side of Detroit” he hasn’t seen. “There’s beautiful places amongst a lot of blight,” he adds.

His co-director Sydni Davis, 22, says SITC opened her eyes in a different way. The Southfield resident who attended Cass Technical High School says she’s surprised by the perceptions of volunteers, some who have never stepped in the city.

“It’s cool to show them that Detroit is not what you see on the news, and it’s different than you think,” she says. “You have to actually come here to know what Detroit is about. You can’t just go by what you hear.”

Camper to volunteer

Sitting on the porch at the Summer in the City house, where six SITC leaders live across from Clark Park, Tristan Lopus, of Farmington, and Sarah Gargaro, of Ann Arbor, are winding down from what they call their “28 hour days.”

The 20-year-olds have one of the more demanding positions as Project Play co-directors.

“We’re giving what we consider a pretty basic childhood experience of going to camp over the summer that kids might not have otherwise,” Lopus says.

Gargaro shares the origins of the Minock Park camp in the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood: A couple saw kids playing at the end of their street all summer without any structure. So last year, they contacted SITC and offered to underwrite a camp. (SITC is funded by donations and partnerships.)

A neighbor offered a vacant lot for activities; another offered a community garden for arts and crafts and the 20 minutes of required reading at all SITC camps. The site now has 10 campers led by a handful of volunteers each day.

The campers go up to fifth grade, but a Junior Volunteer option allows middle schoolers to build their leadership skills before graduating to “volunteer status.”

JV Jalen Akeem, an eighth grader at Bates Academy, admits he’d probably be home playing his Xbox if it wasn’t for SITC. Instead, he spent the morning playing with elementary kids on the Northwest Activities Center playground.

Picking up some kid’s granola wrapper, the JV has a goal for next summer: “Hopefully I’ll get upgraded into a volunteer,” he says.

Continuing the ‘do-ocracy’

Fifteen summers later, there’s a dozen SITC T-shirts, each color representing a different summer. Alumni now in their 30s still have the first white tee. Others proudly wear the more recent orange and lavender shirts around their high schools and colleges.

It’s just a T-shirt, but it means so much more.

Nick Bergeman, 22, a 2014 co-director from Farmington Hills, sums it up after painting a mural at Recovery Park on Chene Street.

“My Summer in the City journey helped me develop as a Detroiter and taught me a lot about what it means to be a member of a community,” he says, “and not just observe it from a distance.”

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Summer in the City Finale Friday

When: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Aug. 12

Where: Adams Butzel Recreation Complex, 10500 Lyndon, Detroit

Backpacktacular: SITC is giving backpacks stuffed with school supplies to 500 campers. Sponsor a backpack for $10 at

Mural voting: Vote for the Finale Friday mural design at