How collaboration builds networks of support for Michigan children

As a nonprofit leader in the city of Detroit, Cindy Eggleton starts each day knowing that the impact Brilliant Detroit makes on the lives of kids and families is stronger because her organization doesn't try to go it alone. Collaboration, she says, is at the heart of each and every Brilliant Detroit program. 

With health, wellness, and education so closely linked for children, collaboration with partner organizations that specialize in these areas has an additive effect for the good Brilliant Detroit can do. 

"We have about 70 partners that we work with right now," says Eggleton, who co-founded Brilliant Detroit and now serves as CEO. "It's about coordination and a continuous approach, and we are glad to be able to work with partners so families and their children are getting what they need before birth to age 8. 

"Collaboration is at the heart of everything we do."

For example, Brilliant Detroit partners with Make Your Date to provide education to moms before their baby is born, with the ultimate goal of making it to their due date — a definite issue in a city with high infant mortality rates. Through a variety of simple tests, Make Your Date can determine a mother's risk for preterm birth and offer treatment for prevention.

Brilliant Detroit
Another strong collaboration for Brilliant Detroit is with Black Family Development, Inc. (BFDI) and Wayne Michigan Children's Health Access Program (Wayne CHAP) through the innovative LENA Start program, a data-driven effort to measure and improve early language exposure and use, which is a key indicator for childhood brain development. Along with education, LENA Start helps families increase language use in daily life

Scratch the surface of effective nonprofit organizations, and it's clear that partnership is the magic word. Across southeast Michigan, one organization is linked to another, which connects to a third, and so on. As the landscape of services for children inevitably changes, nonprofits are able to adapt to shifting needs across Detroit neighborhoods in need, together.

Family health means family safety

Along with early literacy efforts, Brilliant Detroit partners with Kohl's SAFE 4 Kids (KS4K) to make sure the families they serve have the basic tools they need to be safe in their homes and cars. In a city with a poverty rate near 40 percent, the cost of smoke alarms can be prohibitive. The Kohl's program installs them, which can save families' lives. 

The same KS4K program, funded by the Children's Hospital of Michigan Foundation, provides child passenger safety seats and teaches families how to use them.

"If we can add safety and health programs, like safe sleep, home safety, and exercise for the family, we can help parents who just want their kids to be safe," Eggleton says. "Programs like Kohl's help complete that circle."

Through all that Brilliant Detroit offers, their core work remains creating "kid success neighborhoods," an effort that has them listening to the needs of neighbors, and repurposing vacant homes and buildings into neighborhood-based mini community centers, each with a signature orange door. 

Through a partnership with IFF, Brilliant Detroit determines potential geographic locations for these centers. But Eggleton makes it clear that the neighborhoods choose Brilliant Detroit, rather than the other way around.

"These neighborhoods are engaged long before we join them," she says. "When neighbors are together, they don't fail each other."

Innovative collaboration fosters new opportunities

Detroit has collaboration in its DNA, so it makes sense that nonprofits would work together, says Krista Siddall, director of programming and operations with Wayne CHAP. A partnership between Wayne CHAP and Eastern Market makes it easier to stick with the eight-week health-focused Fit Kits 360, a comprehensive group program for 5- to 17-year old kids and their families. 

Basketball at a FitKids360 get together
Eastern Market starts by helping families sign up for the Double Up Food Bucks program to extend their food assistance benefits with fresh fruits and vegetables. But the corporation that runs the largest outdoor market in the country also provides tours of all three sheds of Eastern Market, education about how to shop smart, how to store and prepare produce, and opportunities to sign up for Meet Up and Eat Up support.

"Once our families find out about all of these collaborations, their world is open to all our long term efforts," says Siddall.

She adds that Fit Kids 360 is sustained through their largest partnership with Wayne State Medical school, which rotates medical students as mentors to families in the program. "Without this partnership, the Fit Kids program wouldn't be what it is today, and it also serves to build medical student empathy, opening their eyes to how others live."

A new partnership with Detroit Athletic Club will include a dozen or so Wayne CHAP kids in the Detroit Cycling Championship race on July 14, and represents a small start in a unique collaboration. 

"[The DAC Foundation] has strengths we don't have, and that will allow us to share our message and mission to a larger variety of clientele," Siddall says.

Delivering healthy foods

Across Michigan, the Maternal Infant Health Program (MIHP) provides home visits to Medicaid-eligible pregnant women and babies. Through home visits in Ypsilanti, nurses, social workers, and dietitians began to recognize how hard it is for the families they serve to stretch their food budgets. 

On a monthly basis, Ann Arbor-based Food Gatherers, an anti-hunger nonprofit, runs a monthly popup food pantry at the Washtenaw County Health Department, where MIHP is co-located. Right in the lobby, they set up tables with produce, breads, and dairy products to give to those who are hungry.

"Even though we had that food distribution, and we promoted it during home visits, families with barriers to transportation weren’t able to take advantage," says MIHP supervisor Christina Katka. "So we decided to get creative and came up with a mobile pantry."

They began scheduling the home visits to coincide with the food pantry popup dates, and now care professionals visit their clients with bags of food from the pantry. "We deliver to about eight families a month with this program, and anything we are bringing out to them means more healthy food for their families," says Katka.

Many of the 300 served families who have transportation arrange their WIC appointments during food distribution days, and can select fresh sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, melons, oranges, and plenty of other fruits and vegetables to take home.

And the popup isn't just for those who qualify for public assistance.

SNAP guidelines are set nationally, so those in areas with a higher cost of living, like Washtenaw county, still struggle, even if they don't qualify. "Here, 40 percent who struggle are not eligible, compared to 25 percent statewide," says Markell Miller, director of community food programs for Ann Arbor-based Food Gatherers. In 2017, the collaboration distributed 10,000 meals, or $20,000 worth of healthy food.

The MIHP home visiting professionals are recognizing the value of arriving with groceries. They say food builds connections and trust with the families they serve, many of whom would otherwise take a bus to the store with children in tow.

"When you have a grocery bag with fresh vegetables and healthy foods in your hand, the kids run and grab it so they can see what is there," says Katka. "They are really appreciative." 

This article is part of "Children of Michigan," a series on the importance of health and wellbeing for Michigan's children. It is made possible with funding from the Children's Hospital of Michigan Foundation.

Photos by Nick Hagen.
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