Auntie Na's Village receives Kresge grant to expand kitchen, garden

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sonia Brown had a humble vision, she would turn a home she inherited from her late grandparents into a safe haven for kids and families, but in just a few years it has become a growing village on the city's west side.

The woman better known to her family and neighbors as Auntie Na made the home on Yellowstone and Elmhurst a go-to spot for youth in the community. In 2010, it became a nonprofit and by 2016, she was buying more abandoned spots on the block creating a village for opportunity.

In August, she and a team of students from Wayne State University converted a two-story home into a student-run health clinic providing services to women and children through the university's School of Medicine with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation.

This week, Auntie Na's Village has been granted another $150,000 to transform a house next door into a commercial kitchen and garden to service the community and entrepreneurs. 

Aside from providing emergency housing to families, Brown said they have outgrown their kitchen that feeds those in need throughout the week.

"We don't have a space to feed and serve the community but we do so on a daily basis," Brown said. "This will give the community a space to host dinners and provide help to our emergency shelter families and more space to provide meals."

Brown attributes the growth to the students at WSU who applied at the last minute for the grant and thought it was best to "provide a complete circle of food."

"We'll be using the garden to teach our children and community residents how to utilize fresh food from the garden, take it into the kitchen, teach them to can, preserve and prepare meals," she said. "The community themselves will have access to these as well by taking cooking classes and we'll utilize the space for events and shared kitchen space for entrepreneurs. We want to show that healthy food is accessible."

The Kresge Foundation announced a record $2.4 million in grants to 25 nonprofit community organizations through its Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit initiative this month. Grants went to pathways and arts programming in Brightmoor's Eliza Howell Park, an art gallery and cafe in Mexicantown and renovation of a house into a community hub run by a block club near Detroit City Airport.

Kresge President and CEO Rip Rapson said more nonprofits are engaging with residents to propose projects that can make decisive improvements that foster community and spur revisitation.

"Year by year, we’ve watched our projects map as a sign that revitalization that engages residents, that is largely led by residents, is gaining traction in neighborhoods of the city. There is an enormous amount of work left to do; there are also strong indications and growing hope that we can do it," Rapson said.

After receiving the grant, the community held a bazaar and celebrated with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib who spoke on numerous social determinants of health, including demolition safety and food insecurities

Lakshman Mulpuri, a medical student at WSU and vice president of the student organization, said too often, resources for Detroiters are confined to Midtown and downtown and without proper transportation, residents are unable to take advantage of what the city and WSU has to offer. 

He said Auntie Na's Village is a unique opportunity for students to engage with Detroit residents where they live and give back.

"By serving as an extension of the work Auntie Na and her family has been providing for her neighborhood for decades, we have earned the trust of the community. Without her blessing, however, it would be difficult for us to facilitate these services, a problem frequently encountered by the city and other nonprofit organizations," said Mulpuri, one of the hundreds that volunteer at the Village.

"Auntie Na has always been a guiding light for all those in need, especially those in crisis, by providing food, clothing, and shelter. However as our organization expands, we hope to develop services that not only help those who are most underserved but also empower all of the residents of Nardin Park/Russell Woods to better their health and their community's well-being," Mulpuri said.

There are six or more children currently in the emergency shelter with dozens that rely on the Village as an after-school getaway. The kids are involved in urban gardening and extracurriculars including music and art lessons, tutoring, mentoring, and sports and games in safe spaces. The program recently partnered with Hope Academy, a charter school within 100-feet to expand their existing school programs.

Brown said when the mission began, she had no idea she'd have a village behind her.

"What the Lord has in store, you never know where that ride will take you," she said. "This is much more than the star that I wished upon. This isn't me, it is all of us that have come together. The dollar didn't add up to make cents, the love did."

Congresswoman Rashid Tlaib, left, thanks Sonia Brown, for her efforts with Auntie Na's Village.

What's next for Auntie Na's?

In the coming years, the village hopes to purchase more homes and land. They currently own five homes; a tutoring house, clinic house, nutrition house, clothing house and Brown's own personal house serving as the Auntie Na's Village headquarters.

They own four other vacant lots and plan on expanding their Community Gardens, create a Mercy and Grace House to outreach survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, and create an art house to do creative art programs for youth. They also hope to create a nonprofit Community Land Trust to act as a steward of land and housing for community benefit and hold it in perpetuity. 

As they expand, Brown hopes the village and organization will meet people's basic needs and be passed down to future generations, as her grandparents left for her.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_