How Brilliant Detroit Helps Neighborhoods Shine

Brilliant Detroit works with residents to transform vacant homes into vibrant community education spaces.
Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

On a hot,blazingly sunny afternoon, a cheerfully decorated home in Detroit’s Morningside neighborhood bursts with activity. A bounce house bustles with giggling kids while a boom box blasts catchy dance tunes. Smiling, sun-kissed faces queue up for neon blue snow cones as grown-ups work fastidiously to erect shade tents and set out snacks. The joy is palpable.

The home is one of 12 in the city operated by Brilliant Detroit, a nonprofit organization with a unique model that brings crucial resources for children and families directly to the neighborhoods that need them.

“What we do is we take a vacant house and we repurpose it into a community hub,” explains Brilliant Detroit co-founder and CEO Cindy Eggleton. “In that hub, we have programming for kids, families, and adults in the areas of education, health, and family support.”

On this particular afternoon, Brilliant’s Morningside hub hosts a back-to-school party, outfitting kids not just with snow cones and smiles but also with backpacks and school supplies. Since its opening in August 2021, the hub also provides tutoring, literacy training, exercise and cooking classes, internet access, arts and crafts workshops, and resources for parents, including lactation support for new mothers.

Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

With, for, and by the community

The house itself, along with the programs it offers, was chosen by residents of the Morningside neighborhood as part of what Eggleton describes as Brilliant’s “with, for, and by” approach.

“A neighborhood is selected because the neighborhood invites us in. We involve the families and community, and this is theirs,” Eggleton says. “We hire from our community, and we hire former participants. In our work on the ground, over 35 percent of our staff are either former participants or from the neighborhood.”

For moms like Zsadaja Drewery, who attended the event with her 4-year-old daughter, Za’niya, and her 2-year-old son, Za’kobi, the program is valuable not only because of the resources it provides but for the sense of community it creates for them and their kids.

“[Brilliant Detroit] is just such a blessing, because I’m a mother with two toddlers and, you know, they need to stay busy,” Drewery says. “Here, they always get to interact with other kids and have fun learning. They learn through play, and by them playing and interacting with other children, they’re easily catching on.”

Drewery says Brilliant’s programs provided crucial social support for her and her children during the isolating COVID-19 pandemic. Now, like many of the parents involved with Brilliant Detroit, she gives back by leading story time at the Morningside hub.

“Once you come across an opportunity and a bond and a connection like this, it’s somewhere that you’re just going to stay,” Drewery says of the hub. “Because you can feel the love.”

Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

Elevated in my community

A shining example of Brilliant’s community-driven approach, Morningside resident and mother Rakisha Odom first came to the organization as a volunteer at its Brightmoor location in 2018. Today, she serves as the Morningside hub’s outreach manager after successfully campaigning to bring a Brilliant site to the neighborhood.

“I visited a few sites, and I was totally hooked as soon as I walked through the door,” Odom says. “And I was like, ‘I have to help create these opportunities in my own neighborhood.’”

But Odom says the road to opening the Morningside hub wasn’t without challenges. After identifying a house they felt would be a perfect fit for the program, the community faced a year and a half of delays in securing the property, which was owned by the city’s land bank. Once the house finally landed in Brilliant’s hands, the real work started.

“When we first came to this house, it was horrible, horrible, horrible,” Odom reminisces. “We could not see the front of the house at all because it was covered with bushes.”

Today, it has many original features — including floors, stairs, and moldings — and some family-friendly updates. The bright, airy space is now outfitted with two full kitchens, an arts and crafts studio, play spaces, and cozy nooks where kids can read and study. In the media room, tablets offer high-speed Wi-Fi, connecting kids and parents to virtual tutoring sessions and educational software. The freshly painted walls are adorned with colorful drawings, and outside, a community garden grows fresh vegetables and fruit. In the basement, a supply of diapers, formula, food, and other necessities awaits those in need.

“I’m very proud to be in this position because I feel like I’ve turned into a community leader,” Odom says. “People are constantly reaching out to me asking questions, or for food, or for me to point them in the right direction, and that just feels so good. I feel so elevated in my community.”

Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

Population-level change

Brilliant Detroit serves an estimated 13,000 people out of its 12 hubs, Eggleton says — but the organi- zation isn’t stopping there. It aims to operate 24 hubs by 2024.

“When we hit 24 locations, we will be able to produce a population-level change,” Eggleton explains. She references improving reading scores specifically. Data from the 2022 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress shows that only 9 percent of Detroit third graders are at or above grade-level proficiency in reading. “We can fundamentally change that,” she says. Indeed, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development … at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.”

That change won’t be possible without a healthy force of volunteers. From home repairs to cleaning to organizing events, Brilliant relies heavily on volunteers to keep its 12 hubs running smoothly. But it is mentors — individuals who sign up to provide consistent weekly reading and tutoring sessions with kids — the organization needs most.

“During this period after COVID, kids are more behind,” Eggleton points out. “They need after- school tutoring. So together with partners, that is fueled by volunteers. We need more desperately.”

Mentors with Brilliant Detroit do not necessarily have to be local. During the COVID-19 pandemic, reading and tutoring sessions moved to Zoom — a model that continues to work for the organization, even after most pandemic precautions have been lifted. Volunteers who wish to mentor remotely with Brilliant Detroit need only commit to weekly 30-to-45-minute reading sessions.

“Except for spending time with my granddaughter, it’s the highlight of my week,” says volunteer Joanna Gardiner, or “Miss Joanna,” as she’s known to the kids. “Every time I come here, there’s laughter and good feelings and hugs.”

Perhaps the coolest thing about the Morningside hub is that those good feelings aren’t confined to the home itself. They’ve taken over the block — evident in the new day care center opening on the corner, the newly occupied houses next door, and the recently constructed speed bump at the end of the street.

“Creating support around education for families, and getting families things they needed, turned into something totally beautiful and way more in-depth,” Odom says as the party begins to wind down. “We’re breathing new life into a community.”

Photograph by Sal Rodriguez

How you can help

Literacy tutors are needed for 30-to-45-minute read- ing sessions with students under 8 years old. Not sure it’s the right fit?

Brilliant Detroit offers “friendraisers” during the year in which a group of 10-15 people can tour one of the organization’s community hubs, meet the organization’s founder and CEO, Cindy Eggleton — as well as other potential volunteers — and learn about ways to get involved.

For more information, go to brilliantdetroit.org, and find even more Metro Detroit development news at HourDetroit.com


This story is from the November 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.

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