Detroit woman builds village for neighborhood

Darlene A. White
Special to The Detroit News
WSU medical student Ali Dakka lets Justin Brown use his stethoscope, listening for a heartbeat, as Jiya Brown, 10,  listens for Justin's heartbeat.  Wayne State University medical students setting up a medical clinic as part of Auntie Na's House, providing much needed medical services for the Detroit neighborhood.

Detroit — Sonia Brown wanted more for her home and community on the city's west side.

And so she's gathering a village to build one.

The woman better known to her family and neighbors as Auntie Na purchased an abandoned house in September 2016 with help on Yellowstone Street across from the home that she inherited from her late grandparents and has lived in for the past 50 years for just that purpose.

The two-story house is being transformed through a $150,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation into a student-run health clinic that will provide health and wellness services to women and children through Wayne State University's School of Medicine.

“It has always been a dream of mine to build a healthcare clinic in my community village where I grew up all if my life,” Brown said. “Since the loss of my grandparents and a baby in our community to juvenile diabetes, I was encouraged to get the ball rolling with creating the health clinic."

It's all part of an evolution for Brown, whose home has been as known as the go-to spot for youth in the community for generations. That effort became formalized in 2010 when Auntie Na's House became a nonprofit.

Wayne State University medical students and children from Auntie Na's House gather in front of a medical clinic they are setting up to provide health services for the neighborhood in Detroit.

Her effort is now spreading to several nearby homes on Yellowstone at Elmhurst in turning Auntie Na's House into Auntie Na’s Village with the latest addition being the Medical House for free check-ups and medical access. The redevelopment of the house is expected to be completed this year.

The village will eventually feature the Nutrition House for the food programs and community kitchen in summer 2019, the Learning House for after-school tutoring and education in summer 2019 and the Clothing House for clothing distribution in September.

The first floor of the Medical House will house the medical clinic. The second floor already offers tutoring and art projects from Auntie Na's community enrichment programming, which includes summer camps. 

"This is a part of Wayne State Medical School's social mission," said Dr. Jennifer Mendez, the medical school's director of co-curricular programs and assistant professor of internal medicine. "It is a way for our students to apply their classroom knowledge to real-life situations."

The Wayne State students also formed an organization to support Auntie Na's this year after being inspired during volunteer efforts during the last school year. It includes about 20 members.

The partnership between Wayne State School of Medicine and Auntie Na's allows the medical students’ organization to volunteer at the health clinic to provide regular health screenings once a month at Saturday Bazaars. During these, people receive free, fresh food boxes and can pick up donated clothes. 

“Right now, the health clinic will take anyone that needs to see us," second-year medical student Zaid Mohsen said.

"Since we are currently limited to only providing basic health screenings, we want to see more of an adult population that would benefit from knowing whether they have any unrecognized medical problem such as high blood pressure or high blood sugar or high cholesterol.”

No insurance is required for the clinic, noted second-year medical student Inara Ismailova.

“As we develop the women’s health clinic, it is important to keep in mind that we are trying to improve the health status of the people in this community. We are here to serve their needs,” Ismailova said. “In addition, we think it is important that they feel heard and understood, and that we serve as their health liaisons.”

WSU medical student Sam Keller is greeted by Auntie Na's House children Jiya Brown, 10, and Jenna Brown, 8, as she arrives at the clinic.

Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director of the Detroit Program for the Kresge Foundation, said community organizations such as Auntie Na's "have powerful ideas for how to make our neighborhoods better places to live."

In this neighborhood, Brown considers those in need more like family than neighbors. She calls those who come for care her "babies."

One of them is 13-year-old Destiny Wallace of Detroit. Destiny helps younger children during meals, outdoor activities and field trips.

“I feel good being here and participating in the activities at Auntie Na’s House,” Destiny said. “Being at Auntie Na’s house during the summer has taught me how to bond with my peers.”

For more information on Auntie Na’s health clinic, visit or call (313) 808-8940.