Just over two years ago, I met Mikayla for the first time. I signed up to be a volunteer literacy tutor at Brilliant Detroit and she was my first student at the Osborn Neighborhood Hub. An incoming second grader, Mikayla’s spirited personality was visible as she interacted with her friends during the meal offered at the Hub before tutoring. However, as she and I made our way upstairs to the reading room, Mikayla grew shy.
Hoping to break the ice, I decided to start our session with one of the games suggested in my detailed tutoring folder. The game was called “SNAP Word Chant” and it involved making sure Mikayla could spell a list of high frequency words. Here is the catch. Rather than just spelling the words, Mikayla and I took turns choosing an action (doing the hula, push-ups, jumping jacks, cheerleading, etc.) for each of us to act out while we spelled the word. I got to go first, and I spelled the word “there” while doing an energetic cheer. Mikayla burst out laughing. I guess she didn’t like my high kick. But seriously — that’s all it took. Any awkwardness was gone, and Mikayla eased into our tutoring session.
That first year, I went to Osborn twice a week for our 40-minute sessions. We read stories, played literacy games and did homework together. Mikayla’s reading improved by two grade levels by the end of the year and our relationship felt connected and strong. When it came time to sign up for Year 2, I didn’t hesitate, even with the uncertainty of COVID. Armed with a laptop provided by Brilliant Detroit, Mikayla and I continued to meet virtually every Monday and Wednesday for 40 minutes. We still read and played literacy games, but I would often stay on Zoom past our time limit just to talk. Yes, we missed our in-person interactions, but I could sense how important it was for Mikayla that a “known constant” was showing up for her during a very unsettling time.
Here we are in Year 3 and Mikayla is still sticking with me as her tutor. Has she had an impact on my life? So much so that I recently joined Brilliant Detroit as a staff member. I am inspired by their mission and how they approach the work. While the issues Brilliant addresses are by no means new — just 23% of Detroit children are ready for kindergarten; 16% are reading at grade level by third grade — its model is completely innovative. After receiving an invitation from neighborhood stakeholders, Brilliant Detroit purchases and renovates a vacant house, turning it into a warm and inviting Hub. At each Hub, Brilliant Detroit offers evidence-based programming, ensuring that children are healthy, stable and school-ready.
The model succeeds because it is accessible to families, specifically families who live within a 20-minute walk of each Brilliant Detroit Hub. This hyper-local approach supports neighborhoods by removing barriers to accessing services and by expanding opportunities for participation. The second main driver behind Brilliant Detroit’s success is the manner in which we approach community engagement. Brilliant Detroit is committed to working “with, for and by” its neighbors every step of the way — and enters a neighborhood only after receiving an invitation and conducting at least four listening sessions. Most importantly, Hub staff come from the neighborhoods and are expert relationship-builders. As a result, children and families feel a sense of comfort and trust once they enter our bright orange doors.
It is no coincidence that, in just five years, Brilliant Detroit has grown to serve more than 7,500 children and caregivers in 12 neighborhoods, partnering with more than 80 organizations. We are well on our way to reaching our goal of building 24 Neighborhood Hubs by 2024. This year, as Brilliant Detroit approached Giving Tuesday, we returned to the driving idea behind it: VALUES. In the words of Henry Timms, the creator of Giving Tuesday, "For all of the many things that divide people all around the world, the one thing we all share is our capacity to care for one another.”
We know that each of us has incredible gifts that can contribute to Brilliant Detroit’s shared vision for our communities’ success, whether through a donation of one’s time, talent or treasure. Everyone in our community has a role to play in creating kid success neighborhoods and ensuring that a ZIP code does not predict or restrict a child’s future. Mikayla helped me to understand my role and, for her, I am so very grateful.