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Nonprofit founder a ‘champion for Detroit’s children’

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Delores Bennett devoted her life to becoming a “champion for Detroit’s children.”

For decades, the longtime city resident worked diligently through her community nonprofit, the North End Youth Improvement Council, to guide, support and uplift countless young people.

“There will never be another Delores Bennett. She was a tireless fighter for her North End neighborhood and for all the children of Detroit,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement. “For more than 50 years she brought together people of diverse backgrounds for the sole purpose of bringing joy to thousands of children every year through her adopt a child program. Detroit is a better place because of her work.”

Services are scheduled this week for Mrs. Bennett, who died Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, at age 84.

Her efforts to serve children stretch back more than a half-century.

Moved by a mother’s desperate plea, the Detroiter started coordinating Christmas parties for needy neighborhood children from her north side home in the 1960s — acquiring donated goods from local merchants, longtime associate Dennis Talbert recalls. “She made a commitment that there would never be kids that need and not get.”

The venture evolved to become the Adopt-a-Child Christmas program, which annually connected youngsters with donors from across the country, The Detroit News reported.

Over time, the gatherings grew large enough to move to other locations and fill Cobo Center downtown, where thousands of struggling families descended to receive coats, boots and more.

“I have never seen anything short of the auto show so well attended by people,” said Tyson Gersh, president/co-founder of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative in the North End. “For one person to build that from scratch, during the time when it was very hard to build in Detroit, I think is a real testament to the force that was Delores Bennett.”

Mrs. Bennett, who once estimated the initiative had aided more than 40,000, insisted the gesture was about spreading goodwill. “One of God’s blessings is to try to put a little sunlight in the lives of some of the kids who don’t have anything,” she told The News in 1991.

Giving back marked much of the Detroiter’s work in the city.

Her nonprofit is closely connected to the neighborhood park near Beaubien she helped develop from a former dumping ground, according to a biography. Over the years, the space — named after Mrs. Bennett in the 1980s — offered plenty of opportunities.

“You gave many on the North End their first summer job at the Delores Bennett park, including myself; either by cutting down overgrown grass in empty lots or serving children free lunches at the park,” Lena Sledge wrote in a recent Facebook post. “…Mrs. Bennett gave us a safe place to belong. The park was our safe haven, a place where we were nurtured and cared for and loved. And she made sure we understood that we were to look out for one another.”

Today the NEYIC has a summer program that offers tutoring, field trips, mentoring and more, according to the group’s website.

Its founder also remained a fixture, said Carla Phelps, who is on the group’s executive team. “There are many, many individuals that Mrs. Bennett has helped over the years — people that said they never would have made it out of the North End or survived had it not been for her.”

Aiding others was a hallmark of Mrs. Bennett’s life.

Born Delores Caudle on Nov. 23, 1932, in Clarksville, Tennessee, she relocated to Detroit and wed Eugene Bennett in the 1950s, her family said.

Their home became a haven for neighborhood youth, relatives said — inspiring Mrs. Bennett to work to create meaningful offerings.

“If I can keep that one child from going to prison, then that’s a blessing and my contribution to the society,” she told The News in 1997.

That spirit guided her nonprofit work as well as frequent interactions with youth, whom she urged to use proper etiquette, demonstrate a strong work ethic and focus on others.

“She always wanted them to come and give back to the people who are less fortunate,” said her son, Eugene Bennett Jr. “Love was what motivated to her do everything she did. She said: ‘Everybody has good in them. You’ve got to find it in them and pull it out.’ ”

Mrs. Bennett’s efforts earned honors — including The News naming the former Wayne County commissioner a Michiganian of the Year and recognition from the Detroit Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women Inc.

Through her 80s, she remained generous. In 2015, when a sponsor failed to provide for kids in the Adopt-a-Child program, she rounded up friends and spent thousands of dollars at a Meijer “in order to make sure the kids had a good Christmas,” Talbert said. “She gave everything she had.”

Despite declining health in recent years, she “was driving around the neighborhood all day, every day making sure she touched base with everyone,” Gersh said. “She was just relentlessly selfless — just one of those people who doesn’t stop.”

To honor her memory as well as future leaders, Detroit City Councilmember Mary Sheffield has asked the panel’s Legislative Policy Division to draft a resolution creating the “Delores Bennett Community Warrior Award.”

“Her dedication and commitment to those she loved, and she loved everyone, was unparalleled and abundantly clear with every breath she took,” she said. “Delores Bennett is a Detroit icon and the city is measurably and unequivocally a better place because of her life and work.”

Besides her son, other survivors include a daughter, Mary; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Her husband and two children, Esther Michelle Bennett and Dr. Ronda Bennett Seth, predeceased her.

A viewing is scheduled for 5-7 p.m. Wednesday, followed by a community salute until 9 p.m. at Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, 586 Owen, Detroit.

Another visitation is 9-10:30 a.m. Thursday at the church, with tributes at 10:15 a.m. and a homecoming celebration at 11 a.m.

Memorials may be made to the Adopt a Child Program, 111 King St., Detroit, MI 48202.