Ypsi Township church repurposes former elementary school to provide food, clothing, other ministries

After Willow Run Schools and Ypsilanti Schools consolidated in 2013, many school buildings were shuttered and several have since been torn down. But a church called Greater Faith Transition Center found a home at the former Kaiser Elementary, 670 Onandaga Ave. in Ypsilanti Township, and church members are running more than a dozen charitable programs out of that space today.


"The mission came before the church," says Dorothy Ford, wife of pastor Robert L. Ford.


She started a food pantry with a friend in 1981, long before the church itself was established in 1988. Church members continue to prioritize their mission to help their neighbors, offering both spiritual and physical resources to Ypsi Township residents.


Growing in faith


The Fords started dating when Dorothy was 15 and Robert was 16, and married a few years later. They'll celebrate their 51st wedding anniversary this month. At first, Dorothy was intrigued by how popular Robert was with girls, but she found out he had a bit of a wild side, too.


"The '60s were a psychedelic time, and youth were not into a lot of (serious crime like) murder, but children were mischievous, getting in trouble for skipping school and truancy," Dorothy Ford says.


For a time in the '60s, Robert was a resident of the Whitmore Lake Boys Training School, a juvenile corrections facility later called the W.J. Maxey Boys Training School. He later used that experience to relate to youth in the church and the community at large.


Getting married didn't immediately put him on the straight and narrow, but after a few years the couple settled down as they became more involved with two local churches. They received an education in doctrine and teaching at one church, and a foundation in the business end of running a church from another congregation. Seven years after Dorothy started the food pantry, she and Robert began to think maybe they had a calling to start a church of their own.


Greater Faith started small, with eight couples and their children holding services in the Fords' home, but by the end of 1988 the church moved into a small building on Ecorse Road. As the church grew and evolved, so did the charitable programs it offered, although some kind of food ministry was always central to the mission.


Preparing for consolidation, the school district shuttered Kaiser Elementary in June 2011. Seeing an opportunity to expand its charitable programs, Greater Faith began renting the school in autumn 2013. All was going smoothly for a few years until the school district moved to take the building back, ending in a very public lawsuit between the school district and the church over utility bills.


At one point it looked like the church might be evicted, but after some staff changes at the newly consolidated Ypsilanti Community Schools, the feud between church and school system dissolved. Greater Faith purchased the building and the nine acres it sits on in January.


Making every dollar count


Today, Greater Faith Transition Center offers Sunday school and a Sunday service, preceded by a free breakfast; a Tuesday noon and Tuesday evening Bible study; and a Friday evening prayer hour. A special women's group meets the fourth Saturday of each month.


The church has partnered with Food Gatherers since 1989 and offers a free food distribution event the first and fourth Tuesday of each month, as well as a five-week summer dinner program. The church also utilizes its large, commercial-grade kitchen, built just a few years before the school closed, to prepare a huge, free Thanksgiving dinner for the community every year.


Additionally, Greater Faith has a clothing closet for men, women, and children in need and facilitates Dress for Success of Michigan, a nonprofit whose mission is to "empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire, and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life."


The church offers free tutoring to youth ages 5 to 16 every first Tuesday and provides a room for the Washtenaw County Jail's local office for its Empowering Services program, which helps former inmates get back on their feet and reduce recidivism.


Additionally, the church runs what it calls a "transportation ministry," providing charter bus service and licensed drivers for rent to groups ranging from other churches to family reunions. The congregation also runs its own "adopt a family" program every holiday season and buys practical items like hats, gloves, and socks for about 30 families every year, along with fun items courtesy of Toys for Tots.


Pastor Ford says the small congregation does so much by making the most of what it has.


"It's not what you get that counts, but what you do with it," he says. "I can take a dollar and squeeze until the eagle comes off."


Congregation member Marjorie Marshall is in charge of asking local businesses for donations, whether it's a $20 gift card from Meijer or an in-kind donation of school supplies by stores like Staples.


She is also an employee of the University of Michigan and leverages that connection by asking staff to donate to the church's various programs. She says the University often has leftover promotional material, including hats and T-shirts, that can go into the church's Christmas packages.


Marshall says each child in the family gets a toy or two, but she tries to focus on the practical side, mostly providing toiletries and cleaning supplies, clothing, coats, shoes, and school supplies like book bags and pencils.


One of her favorite memories came from the struggle to find appropriately sized clothing for a young man in one of the families the congregation had adopted. A supporter of the church's programs heard she was having trouble locating clothing in the young man's size and purchased a coat that cost more than $200.


"I could see him watching the other children getting their packages, and you could tell he was thinking he wasn't going to get anything," Marshall says. "But then they gave him the coat, and his eyes lit up when he saw that it was going to fit him."


Both Robert and Dorothy Ford believe owning their own building and property will open doors for even more improvements, both to the physical space and to the church's programs. Now that they own the property, Dorothy says they can make improvements to the building's exterior. She'd also like to see the church use the nine-acre lot more fully, including building a pavilion for outdoor activities.


On the programming side, she says she has seen interest in both a daycare program for children and a day program for seniors, and the congregation has been discussing opening a "Food Pharmacy" for special-needs patients.


"Owning the building has been a benefit and a blessing," Dorothy Ford says. "It's a privilege to be able to say this is our home and call ourselves a beacon in this community."


Anyone interested in donating cash or gift items for Greater Faith's adopt-a-family program may call Marshall at (734) 686-7867.


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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