'More than a park': Nonprofit community space braces for another year of filling learning gaps

It’s hard to believe that the neatly-decorated house at 19470 Lenore Ave. is any different from the rest on the block. A sign on the wooden fence at its perimeter is the first hint that visitors have arrived someplace truly unique: the SDM² Project Education community house and Moore Park.

Founded 20 years ago, SDM² has evolved into an organization that hosts multiple events for the community including a Back to School Bash, homework and literacy programs, a weekly Food Fair, a community garden, and an ‘I am You’ program — a mentorship initiative to encourage young men to be goal-oriented, and community-focused. 

The acronym SDM² comes from the name of founders Jacqueline and Willie Moore’s daughters Silver and Shannon, who both share the same initials and Moore Park serves as a space for the many programs hosted by the nonprofit. The organization is geared to combat problems in education and advance the health and wellness of its community, with a mission to build the community through youth empowerment.

Moore explains that when one of her daughters was having difficulties reading in elementary school, her husband went out a bought a classroom set of summer reading literature to meet the needs of the other children in the class as well as their daughters. While this was most likely an unpopular gift for a classroom of children ready for the end of the school year, this initial push sparked the Moores to do more for the educational needs of the community. 

The first action of SDM² was the Back 2 School Bash, which helped identify students’ issues and pinpoint the organization's role in the community. Every year approximately 300 students receive a backpack with school and hygiene supplies. Jacqueline Moore wants to make sure young people feel the energy of the community leading them along a pathway to success.

 “We make sure before they leave that we bring them all together, and we talk to them about who they are and how valued they are, and how we are speaking wisdom into their lives,” she says.

During the Back 2 School Bash, each child is invited to write one goal that they wanted to achieve that upcoming school year onto a banner. Not only does it help inspire the students, but it helps Moore identify what she needs to work on to support the kids in reaching their goals.

“That banner told us a whole lot about what we should be doing as we move forward," Moore says. 

Students have penned goals like “this is my year to not get kicked out of school", "this is my year to read better", "this is my year to go to school”, says Moore. “That's what pushed us to move forward to make a more academic impact on the young people.” 

The team at SDM² aims to build places where children can feel safe to express learning difficulties and seek help for issues that they may not feel comfortable asking for in school, due to fear of ridicule. The literacy and homework program is a free one-on-one tutoring initiative, in-person or remotely, with SDM² volunteers. The tutors cover middle school and high school math, reading, and science, SDM² also offers group learning sessions where the children can help each other when a difficult problem arises like reading an unfamiliar word. 

A 2019 study, conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, was already showing gaps for students of color in Michigan, and Moore cites the closures of schools, stress on the teachers, and social and environmental factors such as poverty and single-parent households as stressors that contribute to the numbers. 

“Once I got to interacting with the students, I understood that ‘at risk student’ meant that because of circumstances in your life and within your surroundings," she says. "If you're not careful, you can move or go in a path that is not productive for your life.” 

Moore, born and raised on Detroit’s Westside, recalls being heavily involved in the community as a child. She laments that many neighborhoods have lost those close bonds that link people together. SDM² aims to bridge these gaps by creating a haven that all the community can go to for socializing, education, and assistance if needed. 

The community garden and a weekly Food Fair during growing season at Moore Park act as ways to get parents and older adults on-site and Moore loves seeing people enjoy sitting in the garden and relaxing. The space also doubles as an education piece to teach the community about healthy food. 

Before they started the Food Fair, Moore would drop off food donations individually to people’s houses out of the back of a truck, which helped her realize that the food being distributed wasn’t very healthy for the community. It operates a little differently, compared to most food distribution centers in the city. 

The idea of calling it a ‘fair’ embodies the core belief that visitors are important, even though they might be going through a tough time, Moore says. Tents, music, and live cooking demonstrations aim to remove the stigma from food distribution and give the event a more outdoor market environment.

At the ‘I am you’ mentorship camp in September, young black men from the ages of 12 to 18 focus on connecting with successful Black male role models from the community, who model positive lifestyles. Mentors come from a wide array of occupations ranging from health care workers, lawyers, and tradesmen to display various avenues of what success can look like.

“I really didn’t buckle down until 11th grade,” Delvin Conrad, a former mentee and recent high school graduate says. “Coming here, I learned school really does matter and this program will help [participants] think more about graduating and going on to further heights.”

The two-day mentor camp was held in the spacious Moore Park behind Moore’s home, which features basketball courts, tetherball, trampoline, seesaw, archery course, and a zipline. Donations from Moosejaw include camping supplies like sleeping bags and tents, allowing SDM² to create a real camping environment right in a residential neighborhood complete with a bonfire, an experience that Moore says not many of the youth in the program are able to experience otherwise. 

During camp night,  students participate in break-out sessions to discuss topics like dealing with anger, financial literacy, goal setting, and having healthy interpersonal relationships. Last year’s theme was ‘Fit for the Assignment’ which looks at all the ways a person can achieve their goals. 

In addition to the mentoring camp, ‘I am You’ members meet once a month to have learning experiences where a mentor will prepare a lesson for the group. These outings can be anything from learning how to cook and season chicken to visiting college open house nights. Strong emphasis is placed on academic, emotional, and physically healthy attitudes to set the framework to achieve bigger life goals that the mentees will see in their lives. 

“If you really want to help the youth, you have to look at every area that might pose a challenge or a barrier to them being who they were purposed to be,” Moore says. “We try to remove those barriers by putting them in an environment where they see themselves better than they ever thought. We wanted to give a safe outlet to kids to allow recreation and a site to socialize because a lot of the schools and recreation areas around our area are closed.” 

As a volunteer and mother to a mentee in the I am You program, Tiffany Tomlin hopes more neighborhoods in Detroit will come together to create organizations like SDM². 

“The love here is so genuine. I think everyone should have the opportunity to just check it out. Some kids still need that push from outside of their home to do well in school and SDM² helps make that happen.” 
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