Nonprofit in Ypsi Township's Sugarbrook neighborhood seeks to empower youth and families

Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions in Ypsilanti Township's Sugarbrook neighborhood has been addressing its community's spiritual needs for almost a decade. But the church is seeking to address the community's physical and mental health needs as well through its nonprofit Community Family Life Center (CFLC).


For many years the church leadership has offered a food pantry, literacy resources, and other support to its neighbors in Sugarbrook, a neighborhood still trying to bounce back from the Great Recession and problems with crime and drugs. Grace Fellowship pastor Willie Powell and his "first lady" Geraldine Powell decided about two years ago to spin off their charitable programs into their own dedicated 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that the Powells run as a team.


"Our overall goal is to empower youth and families," Geraldine Powell says.


Over the past couple of years, church and CFLC staff held several input sessions to gauge neighborhood needs and have responded to those needs with a number of innovative programs that cover more than just bare survival needs. The aim is to provide mental health resources and enrichment programs as well.


Those programs and experiences are made possible by a wide range of partnerships, ranging from Food Gatherers providing food during a free summer camp program in conjunction with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission to Washtenaw Literacy running literacy and computer education workshops at the church's activity center.


Community Health Services at Michigan Medicine also funded a town hall meeting focusing on what Sugarbrook residents wanted and needed. Geraldine Powell says the theme of giving teens something to do came up over and over again, but there were also many requests for mental health services, especially for heads of single-parent homes and homes where children have experienced trauma.


"So we've done mental health workshops about relieving stress, and I'd like to get to where we can offer more of that," she says.


She says that in addition to helping children, most programs are geared to "give a break" to parents, particularly the heads of single-parent households in the neighborhood.


Sugarbrook resident Neshada Green is one such parent. Along with her 8-year-old twins and 12-year-old son, she attends Grace Fellowship and participates in a variety of programs, including the Youth Activity Action Team that sponsors a monthly movie night.


She says she likes that CFLC is "a chance for us to come together as a community."


In particular, she and her children are fans of the free summer camp CFLC has offered for three years now.


She says her kids "love it. They don't miss a day. It keeps them active and gives me a break."


One of Geraldine Powell's goals is to provide unique experiences that children and families might not otherwise be able to afford, so she started an enrichment program that meets on Wednesday nights for a variety of activities from karate to theater.


An intern from Eastern Michigan University's theater program came to the enrichment group and led participants in rehearsals of a short play. The children from the enrichment group then went to a local elementary and performed it for first- and second-graders.


"They learned public speaking skills and projection and getting into character," Geraldine Powell says.


She has also taken youth on a variety of field trips, including a tour of Washtenaw Community College, where young people spent three hours visiting classes ranging from the auto lab to a dance class and a nursing lab.


Powell enjoys taking kids who may have barely left the neighborhood on field trips even further away, including to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.


"Their eyes got so big," she says. "Most of them never get out of the neighborhood and don't do anything (more exciting than) a cookout in the backyard."


She says the trips are also a chance to lay out behavioral expectations for the children.


"I tell them, 'This is how I need you to act,' and give them expectations," she says. "But I also tell them, 'I trust you. I believe in you.'"


A new Sport Port equipment sharing program that kicked off in mid-August is the most recent CFLC partnership, established in conjunction with Project Play: Southeast Michigan and several YMCA locations around southeast Michigan.


In a complementary program to the YMCA's mobile Y on the Fly program, Sport Port grants allow CFLC and organizations in other communities to set up a stationary program to loan free sports equipment to local youth or their families.


Welcoming partners ranging from Ann Arbor YMCA staff to Habitat for Humanity during the Aug. 14 kickoff event, Pastor Willie Powell called the partnership "an awesome opportunity."


Karen Lewis, a management analyst with the county parks and recreation commission, also serves as the camp director for the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation summer camp held at the CFLC facilities. She says the Sport Port program is a "great partnership," since there is no gym or community center within easy walking distance of the Sugarbrook neighborhood.


"CFLC is a great community partner, especially since we have such a great need on the east side of Washtenaw County for recreation," she says.


Creating community is another theme that runs through all CFLC programs. There's an active neighborhood watch in Sugarbrook, but Geraldine Powell says "neighbors don't know each other anymore the way they used to."


"Some people have been living in Sugarbrook for 20 years and hardly know who lives on their street," she says. "(Our goal is to) provide health services; take care of moms, dads, and aunts who don't get a break; provide recreation for youth and information about (resources) they're entitled to; and social support. A big part of it is just helping people know who their neighbors are."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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