Ford Fund Strengthens Detroit with Community Engagement

Imagine getting a haircut, finishing a computer coding class, reviewing your apartment lease with an attorney, and then driving home with a bag of fresh fruits and vegetables in your trunk.

Now imagine that you can get all of those things — for free — at one place in your neighborhood. Thanks to the Ford Fund and a capable collection of nonprofit organizations, residents of Southwest and East Detroit can find all of these services and many more at Ford Resource and Engagement Centers located in the heart of both neighborhoods.

In providing a place for community members to gather, learn, celebrate, and volunteer, the Ford Fund is reinvesting in the place it calls home.    

 As the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company, the Ford Fund is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening communities and making people’s lives better – in Southeast Michigan, and around the world. The Ford Fund focuses its resources on three areas: education, safe driving, and community development. It also helps match Ford Motor Company employees with volunteering opportunities at nonprofit organizations – facilitating more than 1.3 million volunteer hours since 2005. The Ford Fund has invested over $2 billion since its founding in 1949, investing nearly $68 million in 2018 alone. By providing grants to college students to help them launch social projects, teaching newly licensed and teen drivers how to be safe behind the wheel, feeding the hungry, mentoring social entrepreneurs, and more, the Ford Fund works with dealers and nonprofits to provide access to opportunities and resources that help people reach their full potential. 

The Dearborn Michigan-headquartered Ford Fund is an entirely separate charitable organization from the New York-based Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation began in 1936 with the bequests of Company Founder Henry Ford and his son Edsel Ford and currently focuses on worldwide social justice. 

While pursuing initiatives in more than 60 countries where Ford does business, the Ford Fund devotes a significant amount of resources where it began, in Southeast Michigan. In East Detroit at Fisher Magnet Upper Academy and managed by the Detroit Public Schools Foundation, the Ford Resource and Engagement Center (FREC) provides educational opportunities for area children and increases access to essential services for residents and families.

In Southwest Detroit, the FREC founded in 2013 is located at the Mexicantown Mercado, where non-profit partners offer a Gleaners food hub, legal and income tax assistance, education and employment initiatives, a bike repair shop, Girl Scouts, drama classes, and cultural activities for families and individuals.  To date, FREC Southwest has assisted over 100,000 local residents. The Southwest Detroit Immigrant & Refugee Center is a key tenant that provides legal services and help with housing and financial needs. Kevin J. Piecuch, its Executive Director, is an enthusiastic partner of the Ford Fund. “They want results, they want to make sure we are delivering good services. But once you become their partner they become your best friends. And synergy really happens because they have hand-selected partners all working in support of the same thing.” 

He continues, “Ford allows us to put all of our funding into programming in underserved communities where high quality free or low–cost legal services simply do not exist. They provide financial support, office support, marketing assistance, and help us develop outreach – so Gleaners Food Bank will include a description of the legal services we offer with their bags of food. A large portion of our target population is undocumented who really have no place to go for quality legal representation. Some are having really complicated cases for immigration, custody, or probate. ”He adds, “and the Ford Fund sends us volunteers, including college students who decide they want to be public interest lawyers as a result of working with us.” 

Piecuch related the story of one client who came to the Southwest Center for assistance from Gleaners Food Bank. “He was hearing impaired and undocumented and was picked up by ICE. We worked on his case to help him get a work permit, and now he has a little business going as a caterer for neighborhood functions. He is awaiting his asylum hearing and we are right alongside him.”  

Piecuch adds, “Because they are such an innovative company, Ford brings more resources to bear to support us through the Ford Fund. As they develop innovative programs, I hope they continue to share those with us. They are not just there to write a check, they want us to be successful.”  

Gleaners Food Bank is the lead nonprofit organization at the East Side FREC, which was established in 2017.  The Gleaners Organization operates throughout Southeastern Michigan, working a network of 500 partner agencies to distribute food and basic necessities. Gleaners Executive Director Gerry Brisson is an expansive thinker who has worked with the Ford Fund for decades. “With each FREC, we were able to combine the resources of the Ford Fund, the City of Detroit, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Detroit Public Schools and Detroit Public Schools Foundation, and a broad spectrum of service providers to enable a cross-functional, systematic approach to solving community needs.” He says the Ford Fund provides “many things to Gleaners. They have organized thousands of hours of volunteer support. They have provided executives to sit on our board and engage in making Gleaners stronger and healthier. They have been thought partners on how to maximize community impact. They have given us their leaders to help us think through complex problems.” Brisson sees the Ford Fund collaboration extending into the future. “They will help us put the pieces together in new collaborations and opportunities we haven’t imagined yet – but will need in order to be effective.”  

According to Shawn Thompson, Community Development Manager for the Ford Fund, building relationships with dependable nonprofits is the key to successful community building. “Each center is designed to meet the needs of the community they serve. On the East Side, we put in a barbershop, because that is a place of gathering that is important in the African-American community. We have a great relationship with the local police precinct. The Detroit Lions even brought out five of their rookies to speak to students from Osborne and Denby high schools about social responsibility.”  

Thompson continues, “I have so many stories of how this place impacts lives. When I first started working at the Ford Fund, the partners shared that there was a gentleman coming in who didn’t have his GED and was searching for a job. We helped him get both, and then his Class A license to drive a truck. Now he is back volunteering at the same center – giving back to the same community that helped him.”  

Having spent 25 years with the Ford Motor Company, Thompson is excited about her current role as a connector between the Ford Fund and the community. “On Halloween, we passed out 99,000 pieces of candy along Vernor Highway between Michigan Central and a haunted house at the FREC. For the holiday season, we partnered with Corktown Aglow and activated our Information Center with festive games, and hot cocoa.”

But it’s the range of essential support that makes Thompson the proudest of what the Ford Fund and its partners do. “On any given day, you could find classes in yoga for stress reduction, computer coding, cooking, and nutrition. There are translation services, citizenship classes, Spanish and English classes, job readiness coaching, even accounting. It is open to all – we don’t question those things.” Sometimes the most basic gifts are the simplest, she says. “When you see someone leave the Center with the groceries they need, the fresh eggs and produce – it really warms your heart.”