Pontiac's Baldwin Center innovates for the future

The Baldwin Center started as a humble soup kitchen in the early 1980s, and over the years has expanded to include a number of services and programs, including a harvest table with available fresh foods, access to showers and laundry facilities, educational programs, and more.

More than a response to needs of the Pontiac community, this growth is the result of deep trust that has grown between the Baldwin Center and the clients it serves.Ferndale's Good Karma Club volunteers with kids in the Baldwin Youth Center.

With a tiny staff of 14, and 2,736 volunteers who last year donated 26,755 work hours, the Baldwin Center innovates continually to develop a stronger, more collaborative relationship with the community.

We talked with Elizabeth Longley, executive director at the Baldwin Center to learn more about what the year ahead holds.

The Baldwin Center has a lot of services. What is the process of innovation for new programs?

We are always doing futuring, always trying to figure out what is best, and sometimes that means cutting a few programs. We don’t want to duplicate programs that other community members are doing. For example, we have a community gardening program, but we don’t need youth summer employment around that because others do that. We need to focus on food, clothing, education and empowerment.

In fact, that’s your tagline. “Feed, clothe, educate, empower.”

Yes. We start with the basics. We feed people. We served 40,000 meals last year, and in our clothing closet, we helped 2,500 people in 8,000 visits. We have an afterschool program for kids in first through eighth grade, and a six-week summer enrichment day camp.

We are innovating around empowerment. We work from the perspective of what will empower people, and we create programming around that. For example, we received funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, and are creating what we call Innovative Frameworks training for communities, faiths, and businesses on how to reframe the conversation on poverty. We are partnering with Aha! Process and Ruby Payne, who is the ultimate researcher. We are working with the Bridges Out of Poverty workshop, which is experiential learning around how people view poverty.

How will this shape the future of the Baldwin Center?

What we are attempting to do with Innovative Frameworks is develop a mechanism that would be a revenue stream. We are the experts on poverty and poverty programming, and we are looking at how we can engage the community in developing microbusinesses.

What is an example of this?

Well, look at Avalon Bakery as an example. We have a commercial kitchen and could create a food lab here. It would take funding and someone who knows how to run a business like that. We are figuring out how to use the assets we have, including seven gardens and a hoophouse. How can we better utilize this? We have the space, and the right partners could help us take it to a new level.Baldwin Center soup kitchen volunteers prepare meals for hungry clients.

What would be the outcome?

We are working to help our clients engage with us more proactively on a community organizing level. In this way, they can become their own advocates. They can help run the Baldwin Center, and be engaged at a much higher level.

The Baldwin Center recently received a grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation as part of the STEM 2035 cohort. What will this look like?

In January, we will be implementing a program to get middle school kids prepared for learning STEM. Why is STEM important? Why is it fun and not what we typically think about when thinking science and technology? It’s a three-year program with cohorts of 12 kids, with intense programming and an introduction to engineers. We are partnered with GM for innovative engineering, robotics, coding, these types of activities. We are really excited. Of 122 applicants, only 17 were funded. We are one of only seven in southeast Michigan, and one of two outside of Detroit.

What could the Baldwin Center use more of?

Money. Each year we raise $550,000 in cash donations, and that’s what keeps us afloat. We get money from the federal government to fund food and our summer food program, and that’s about it. We are currently down $16,000 from where we were two years ago.

The economy is strong, so is it counterintuitive that your donations are down?

People have been putting their money elsewhere. Organizations that are heavily government-funded were being threatened, and the new tax law put everyone on edge. Now the stock market is down, and people are nervous about it. Those external things impact us. Also our donors are aging out. Congregations dwindle and age, and we are losing donors.

Everyone waits to donate until this time of year, and this is our crucial time. Of course, we will take money anytime.

What else would you like to say about the Baldwin Center?

The biggest thing about the Baldwin Center is that we truly believe in human dignity. And we partner with our clients. They are part of who we are, and we are trusted in the community. We are low barrier in that we don’t ask questions, we don’t ask for financial disclosure. People can come and get a decent breakfast if they are homeless, and can get food when they are hungry, and a hot shower, We are not a huge organization, but the community trusts us and trusts what we do.

Catch up with the Baldwin Center on Facebook or Twitter.

Photos courtesy of the Baldwin Center.

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Read more articles by Claire Charlton.

Fascination drives Claire Charlton to write features and profiles. Always interested in people and their stories, Claire is dedicated to the art of interviewing. A freelancer for a dozen years, Claire writes about health, fitness, business and fun. When she’s not writing, drinking coffee or hanging with her family, Claire runs endurance events, practices yoga, and volunteers with lots of nonprofits.