Column: Build a healthy Detroit

Melvyn Rubenfire

While the impact of the Great Recession was difficult to experience and witness, there is now evidence in Detroit that goodness will win. In addition to the improving economy and mid-town and downtown redevelopment, there are many untold stories about people helping people in Detroit that give promise and hope. Our story is about Project Healthy Community (PHC), a near 5-year-old nonprofit partnership that began with a Yom Kippur sermon in 2012 that led to collaboration among members of various racial and ethnic groups.

PHC’s founders include leadership of Temple Israel of West Bloomfield, Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit. At the time, unemployment in Detroit was 19 percent, 42 percent of residents lived below the poverty level, and many were depressed, angry, hungry, and in need of basic necessities. By 2016 Detroit poverty rate was still 32 percent. The poorest residents in southeast Michigan live on average six fewer years than the poorest in New York City. And as is well known, the poorly educated are more than twice as likely to be unemployed and involved in crime. Simply put, Detroit was failing its children regardless of where to place the blame.

We created PHC with the mission of promoting the well-being of families in need within communities by enhancing nutrition and education, each critical to good health. Helping one person, particularly one child, and one family at a time is worth the effort of the many. The PHC model can be used to enhance volunteerism and reduce cost of providing services to those in need with collaboration among a diverse group of partners representing several communities, races, faiths and financial classes. Among the largest of PHC’s volunteer groups is the clients we serve. We partner with existing organizations and programs to improve and/or expand the scope, program content, and cost effectiveness of delivery, and create new initiatives where none currently exist.

At this time, more than 350 volunteers including teens and a few part time employees are impacting the lives of more than 3,000 clients primarily in Northwest Detroit. Programs include food distribution from a mobile pantry and urban garden, a summer camp, an elementary school afterschool program and nutrition education for first-graders, clothing distribution and a summer volunteer and exciting job opportunity for teens. In 2015, the cost to PHC of the goods/programs provided was $103K with total value to clients estimated at $500K. The 40-week afterschool program cost PHC about $1,000 per child compared to the national average $2,500. The mobile food pantry provided families about one-third of their annual food costs. Seventy-five families with 300 members selected as most in need by school administrators were provided winter clothing for each family member and supplemental healthy food.

PHC’s success is dependent on many nonprofit partners and volunteer and program support includes students and faculty from local universities and high schools, and Sinai-Grace Hospital. Major funding has been obtained from each of our valued board members. Individuals and businesses have graciously donated legal and accounting services, a management database, the website, and office and storage space.

If PHC is able to obtain funding, we plan to increase the number of afterschool programs in Northwest Detroit, and help other communities to replicate our efforts.

It is incumbent upon the city to recognize and invest in those nonprofits working hard to improve Detroit every day. We are ready to partner with those who share our hopes. To the community we serve, we thank you for your partnership and look forward to the time when your children will be leading our efforts. Goodness will have won.

Melvyn Rubenfire, MD, is professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and president of Project Healthy Community.