Auntie Na's Village helps neighbors in need, bringing 'unity to its community'The Nonprofit Journal Project

My grandparents raised me here, at the cornerstone of Yellowstone (Street) in Detroit. They worked hard so they could always feed and clothe people, and provide those in need a safe and welcoming place. When I was growing up, you didn't have neighbors, you had family, and you looked out for each other. We softened hard times by being able to support and care for one another. Nobody was just anybody in this community, everybody was somebody.

For the last 20-30 years, this area has been known as "Auntie Na's." When my grandparents passed away, I just kind of stepped into it. My children were growing up here, and this was the Kool Aid house where all the kids gathered and played. When their friends came, they were always in need of something: something to wear, to eat, someone to watch their little sister in the morning because their mom didn't come home last night and they needed to get to school. Sometimes they needed a safe place to spend the night.

As my children grew up, my nest didn't empty because I had my autistic grandson with me. With James Brown, there was always something to do, someplace to go. One day, we were watching some kids act up and he said, 'You should help the kids, Grandma. We got the toys, let's play with the kids.' I hesitated, but then something hit me, why not? If these are the kids busting out windows, and throwing stuff, aren't these the kids that need guidance the most? Why not give them something to do? So we played with those kids and others, and before I knew it, I went from being "Mama Na," the Kool Aid mom, to "Auntie Na's house", where everyone had a place.

Over the years, our house has turned into a village and a community nonprofit. Across several properties on this block, we provide neighbors with a free medical clinic, community meals, student tutoring, youth summer programming and employment opportunities, a nutrition program, and a community garden. We also regularly give away clothing, school supplies, cleaning products, toys and bikes for kids of all ages.

Our housing program provides temporary emergency housing for those who are homeless or leaving dangerous situations, and we have some residents who live long term here, and work to support the maintenance and growth of our organization.

Bless the hearts of my students at Oberlin College, Wayne State University - School of Medicine and University of Detroit Mercy. Many have volunteered here, ran our medical clinic, and served on our board. They're the backbone of most of our projects and programs, and so instrumental to our work that without them, there'd be no village. They planted their grain of a mustard seed in me, a faith that this is what we could create.

And we have, with the support of Kresge, who's given us two major grants. One allowed us to created the medical house and research program, which is primarily run by Joel Appel, DO and WSU students. We were open Monday through Friday before the pandemic, and in winter months, we used it as a warming center where folks could come in at night, get a coffee and a sandwich, relax and see a medical student if needed. Because it's student-run, we had to close our medical house during COVID-19, but we're slowly opening up now.

Last school year, we used practically the whole village to support students in the neighborhood with virtual learning. We'd previously offered after-school tutoring, but during this time, we saw so many of our community kids were struggling with their online classes. Here, they had access to a laptop or a tablet, and we hired two teachers, and had many volunteers who worked beside them, even facilitating with their parents or virtual teachers. We were able to keep 20 or so K-8 students on point, so that they didn't fall far behind like many others.

Another major pivot we made during the pandemic was to implement a Free Food Box Program. We used to serve three community meals a day, six days a week, for hungry people in our neighborhood. During the pandemic, with the help of FEMA, Gleaners, Panera Bread and Whole Foods, we distributed food boxes to between 500-1000 families a week. We were delivering as far as Washtenaw and Genesee Counties, and were surprised by how far away people called from for help. Many seniors, especially, are poverty stricken in suburban areas. 

We're thankful that Kresge allowed us to pivot the grant they'd given for our Nutrition House to cover emergency food needs in our community and beyond. We got a large truck to pick up and organize food donations, and a refrigerated truck for meats and perishables. We bought freezers and shelving and created a food warehouse. We also built raised beds and expanded our community garden so we could include lots of fresh produce in our boxes. 

There is still a great need to build a Nutrition House here, a place where we can teach healthy cooking and eating, and provide neighbors with a commercial kitchen to increase entrepreneurship. Many women in our community want to supplement their income with small food businesses. We still need funding to be able to continue that vision.

Our village was also hit hard by the flooding this past June. We are still throwing things out that were contaminated and ruined. We lost furnaces and hot water tanks in multiple houses, and haven't had the ability or the finances to fully clean and restore these basements. 

The pandemic has brought out our humanity, and our need for each other. I can get weary, but being able to help even one person is what gets me out of bed each morning. If this time hasn't made you want to become your brother's keeper, if it didn't bring you to your knees, and humble you enough to say let me help you, I'd rather you not bring your way Auntie Na's way. This was meant to make us question ourselves and who we are to our neighbor.

Sonia Brown is the executive director of Auntie Na's Village in Detroit. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.