Kimberly Newberry, President, CEO and founder of Developing K.I.D.S., talks about helping Detroit young people achieve their goals and dreams.


Eight-year-old Mykel Martin didn’t know how to read when he showed up at Developing K.I.D.S., and he didn’t seem overly confident that he could. Now he’ll spontaneously grab a book and read aloud to everyone.

That’s worth $85,000 all by itself.

Destynee Nixon, 19, went through the Developing K.I.D.S. program a few years ago because a judge ordered her to. Now she leads a classroom there, and Mykel and the other K-through-2 youngsters pondering their superpowers adore her nearly as much as she adores them.

She’s planning to become a teacher and, long-term, that makes $85,000 a bargain.

The Detroit-based McGregor Fund turned loose $5.5 million in grants last month to 42 nonprofits. It was the foundation’s first round of giving since it announced a new focus earlier this year — less arts and culture, more basic needs and a wider, deeper safety net for people whose only connection to trendy Midtown restaurants is standing outside them waiting for a bus.

One entire new corner of that safety net is a category called skill building, which McGregor president Kate Levin Markel concedes is “sort of an imperfect shorthand for what we mean.”

At the high end, the skill-building umbrella covers $350,000 for the Detroit Conservation Corps, the training program from Greening of Detroit that helped inspire McGregor to rethink its mission. Toward the smaller end, it means $85,000 for Developing K.I.D.S., which among other things hires promising young people like Nixon to help bring out the promise in even younger people.

Bottom line, the idea is to equip Detroiters to be participants, not just spectators, in whatever’s new and good in the city.

The McGregor Fund was established in 1925 by Tracy and Katherine McGregor. He was the second-generation operator of a Detroit rescue mission, and she had founded an orphanage in Highland Park.

What’s now a $162 million organization was designed “to relieve the misfortunes and improve the well-being of humankind,” its mission statement said — a lofty goal made attainable by her status as an heir to the David Whitney lumber fortune.

McGregor has previously invested in things like streetlights and blight removal, and no reasonable person disputes their value. There are dollars in the latest awards for homeless centers in its target counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. Forgotten Harvest and Gleaners Community Food Bank cashed checks, too; you can’t learn or work if you’re chronically hungry.

“But that wasn’t necessarily going to engage Detroiters in being the force of change,” Markel says. “We have a lot of people in Detroit who are underskilled. They stuck it out here, but they have a lot of difficulty finding gainful employment and keeping it.”

She describes the target programs more in terms of what they aren’t than what they are. Not government-funded. Not household names. Not half a century old. Not franchises.

They tend to exist because of a single person with vision, like Kimberly Newberry — who sees the world through one eye.

A former Detroit schoolteacher, she lost her left eye in November 2006 when Developing K.I.D.S. was not quite a month old.

She was in her yard a few blocks from Don Bosco Hall, the former St. Suzanne parochial school on West Chicago that serves as home base for her organization and a handful of others. Her college sweetheart had become her husband, and then he became a paranoid schizophrenic.

Just before he killed himself, he shot her in the head. “It was an accident,” she tells the youngsters in her program who ask about the scars, “but Miss Kim is OK.”

Miss Kim gets paid to manage the building, but takes no salary from her nonprofit, the better to pay high school and college-aged kids to work with the younger students learning academic subjects and also things like conflict resolution, social skills and goal-setting. The ratio in the summer and after-school programs is typically one leader to five students, and the cost to attend is zero.

In past years, says program director Tenecha Bland, “We’d pass out fliers at laundromats to fill our programs.” This summer, for the first time, there was a waiting list. The kids come from the neighborhood, the after-school programs and in a few cases — another first — from the suburbs.”

On a sunny summer morning, some of the students are outside amid books scattered across the pavement. The lesson between the lines, says Newberry, 41, is that “reading is fun, and it can be done anywhere, not just class.”

Inside, the K-through-2 kids are writing their answers to a question Nixon posed on the blackboard: “If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?”

There’s a teenager at each round table, helping the second-graders with their spelling and the kindergarteners with their letters.

“If I had super vision,” one girl writes, “I could see my mom.”

Nixon tosses around the question for herself and decides she’d like to read minds. “I always want to know what people think,” she explains.

Watching her, Newberry is thinking how much Nixon has grown.

Once, she was ready to give up on herself. Now she’s deliberating between Oakland Community College and a four-year school.

She has the ability to build a life — a pretty fair superpower on its own.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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