Rubin: 1,000 Points of Light and some Coneys

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Lonnie Ali will speak at the Points of Light conference at Cobo Center on Monday despite the recent death of her husband, Muhammad.

I have dropped in on business-related conventions where the seminars have names like “How to Get Ahead By Strangling a Kitten.”

There’s a slightly different message this week at Cobo Center.

Three thousand well-intentioned souls from 37 counties and a presumably large number of states are here through Wednesday for the Points of Light Conference on Volunteering and Service.

The Atlanta-based Points of Light Foundation is named for a passage in George H.W. Bush’s inaugural address in 1989, where he invited Americans to be one of “a thousand points of light” by doing nice things for their fellow citizens.

Doing nice things is a nice thing, and we can presume that people willing to travel to Detroit to learn how to do them better will not be brawling in cowboy bars.

Instead, they will be listening to Lonnie Ali speak at lunchtime Monday and attending seminars with names like “Catalyzing Community Service with Compassion Games: Survival of the Kindest,” “Superheroes Don’t Always Wear Capes,” and “A Cycle of Servant Leadership: Post-9/11 Veterans Inspiring Youth to Serve at Home.”

Not a single kitten will be harmed, and I predict that an uplifting time will be had by all.

But what about the hours away from Cobo? What does the host committee, peppered with good-hearted locals like Rich Homberg of Detroit Public Television and mayoral chief of staff Alexis Wiley, want 3,000 conventioneers to do, see and experience?

My suggestion is eat Coneys, and more about that momentarily.

Detroit immersion

Officially, though, the movement is toward more volunteering, plus walking tours of downtown and bus tours of places like southwest Detroit and Corktown.

“We’re calling those ‘immersion learning,’ ” says the foundation’s Amber Gowen, formerly of Ferndale and now located closer to family in Grand Rapids.

Some lesser parts of Brightmoor, like this home on Pierson Street, will be visible during a Points of Light convention tour.

There’s a Tuesday expedition, for instance, called “What’s Working in Detroit and Why It Matters to You.”

Scheduled over the weekend, before the first PowerPoint hit a screen, there were Flint-related service projects and a trip to Brightmoor, where Greening of Detroit organized a farm-to-table dinner.

I’d have hit that, but I would also make time to visit American Coney Island on Lafayette Boulevard at Griswold Street.

American Coney Island stands within walking distance of Cobo Center, site of an annual volunteerism conference that was held in Houston last year.

Neighboring Lafayette Coney Island generally has the more vocal fans, but American has third-generation owner Grace Keros.

For the uninitiated, our venerated Coney is a natural-casing wiener topped with beanless beef chili sauce, diced onions and mustard. Keros is a soft touch when it comes to giving them away for charity, and though she doesn’t talk about it, she routinely picks up the tab for members of the armed forces.

She might not be an official Point of Light, but she is absolutely a ray of sunshine.

The city as leader

Meanwhile, back at the conference, Lonnie Ali is still scheduled to appear, even though her co-star and husband, Muhammad, died June 3.

The Ford Fireworks will lift off later, and host committee member Michelle St. Pierre says she’s prepared to tell gullible visitors that the display was arranged just for them.

St. Pierre, marketing director for St. Vincent De Paul Detroit, says Detroit is more than the location for the convention. It’s also an attraction.

“People want to taste it, feel it, wrap their arms around it,” she says. “They want to know what makes it so special and unique to be able to come back and thrive and be a leader.”

How much it leads, of course, depends on where in the 139 or so square miles you’re standing. Sometimes it follows, and sometimes it falters.

But it always tries, the same way the people at the conference do.

“We have one common goal,” St. Pierre says: “How do we help?”

It’s a noble quest — even more noble, perhaps, than the Coney.