Here Comes the Neighborhood

Detroit nonprofit Life Remodeled continues to revamp local schools, homes, and communities on a grand scale.


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Remember the ABC show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? Chris Lambert certainly does.

“I will admit I cried every single time I watched that show,” says the CEO of Life Remodeled.

Lambert started the nonprofit Life Remodeled four years ago — a home renovation concept inspired by Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that, much like the show, provided a family in need with a new home. Unlike the show, however, Lambert wanted his version to take a more holistic approach to “transforming lives.”

Today, the nonprofit is transforming lives and impacting entire neighborhoods. Last year, it undertook a major renovation project in the Cody Rouge neighborhood (capped by a $1.2 million football field so the Cody High team could play its first “home” Homecoming in six seasons). This year, it tackled areas surrounding Osborn High, which was slated to receive a new roof.

For Life Remodeled’s first projects, Lambert arranged not only for a Detroit-area family to receive a new home, but also financial education. The organization also made improvements to surrounding neighborhoods by boarding up vacant houses and beautifying local streets.

In its first two years, Life Remodeled built five homes for families in need, but as Lambert pressed on, he noticed that, compared to the home renovations, Life Remodeled’s neighborhood efforts allowed him to meet more of his holistic goals. Now, Lambert says, Life Remodeled has identified its sweet spots.

“We do three things really well,” Lambert says. “We remodel schools, we remodel houses of kids who attend the school, and we remove blight.”

Those focus areas have made Life Remodeled a significant player in the Detroit nonprofit world, especially after its ambitious 2014 project in the Cody Rouge neighborhood on Detroit’s west side. Renovation efforts centered primarily on Cody High School, while nearby Mann Elementary and Henderson Academy received lighter improvements like a thorough cleaning and updated landscaping. The weeklong project also included the teardown of three burnt-out houses, the remodeling of 25 homes belonging to students and their families, the boarding up of more than 250 houses, and the beautification of some 300 city blocks.

All told, the renovations and neighborhood cleanup required $5.5 million, including the project’s crown jewel — the $1.2 million football field at Cody High School. Major funding for the project came from a swath of corporate sponsors like General Motors and Barton Malow — who served as general contractor — as well as church organizations and fellow nonprofits like the United Way and the Skillman Foundation.

“If it wasn’t for Skillman and United Way, Cody Rouge would be dead,” says Cody Academy of Public Leadership principal Johnathon Matthews in the trailer to Cody High: A Life Remodeled Project.

The film documents the impact of the Life Remodeled project on the Cody Rouge community and showcases the work done during “Build Week” last August, when well over 10,000 volunteers from local churches, corporate sponsors, and the Cody Rouge neighborhood itself turned out to clean, paint, construct, and demolish. General Motors led the charge with close to 3,700 volunteers, and Quicken Loans sent 2,000.

“When we’re in the neighborhood, that’s when we’re actually connecting with the community in a more meaningful way,” says Leslie Andrews, director of community relations at Quicken Loans. “It’s not about money. Money can remove some barriers, but it doesn’t do a great job at building relationships.”

For General Motors, partnering with Life Remodeled also meant establishing personal connections, as well as reinforcing existing partnerships in local neighborhoods and schools.

“It was just a way to get our employees outside of their door and engaged in seeing what’s going on in their community,” says Heidi Magyar, director of community outreach at GM. “It [was] probably our largest single volunteer project that we’ve ever had.”

It was the largest project to date for Life Remodeled, too, and while Lambert celebrates that kind of growth, he also hopes that the organization can become more effective by engaging more community members, establishing long-lasting partnerships, and making sustainable improvements to schools, which have become the anchors to their annual projects.

“We strongly believe that so goes a school, so goes a neighborhood,” Lambert says.

 

 

In August, Life Remodeled steamrolled into its second major school renovation at Osborn High School in northeast Detroit, a neighborhood that not long ago belonged to one of the most violent ZIP codes in the country. Crime statistics aside, there were plenty of other factors to take into account when selecting the 2015 project site.

“There’s two things that we look for,” Lambert says. “Significant need and radical hope. And when we say hope, we’re looking for grassroots efforts that have already been going on. We’re looking for key leaders and for a critical mass that believe in their neighborhood.”

At Osborn, those key leaders include Black Family Development Inc., and the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance — two organizations that were already invested in the community when Life Remodeled stepped in to provide a boost.

Quincy Jones, executive director of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, says inviting Life Remodeled to come into the neighborhood as a partner has helped shine a spotlight on existing organizations.

“I think a lot of times people think Detroit, or Detroit communities, are just waiting for something to happen,” Jones says. “But this lets them know that community-based organizations are here and we’re working together to make the community better.”

The event was another massive undertaking and a huge success. “Build Week” at Osborn included the construction of a new roof, gym, cafeteria, library, and main office at Osborn High School, and when the dust settled, the list of neighborhood improvements also included the remodeling of 21 homes, a major trash removal effort across 320 blocks, and the boarding up of nearly 400 houses.

“Blight is on everybody’s mind right now,” Jones says. “People want to have a safe neighborhood. This is years of neglect and it’s going to take everybody to move the neighborhood out of this blight issue.”

Initiatives like blight removal make it easy to see the Osborn project’s immediate impact, but Lambert hopes Life Remodeled’s efforts make a lasting impression in other ways.

“We’re all about networking and partnerships,” Lambert says. “It’s really our hope that our partners are going to get a heartbeat for these specific neighborhoods and for these specific high schools and make long-term commitments.”

For Lambert, the most crucial long-term commitments are to residents and students, and the CEO plans to elevate the roles that those groups play in future projects.

In 2016, the nonprofit will focus on Denby High School, just east of Osborn, partially because of the school’s existing youth engagement. According to Lambert, the school integrates blight removal and community development into its curriculum.

“Our hope next year is to actually empower students to lead the project,” Lambert says.

A student-led high school renovation? That sounds like a new TV show in the making.

 

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