How a Detroit parish's community center became the secret to a sustainable future

Steve Wasko, executive director of the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center, speaks with Sr. Eloise Hirleman, RSM, in front of a mural at the community center at St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish. The Sisters of Mercy are one of 20 different partner organizations that provide services at the northwest Detroit parish. (Photos by Daniel Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center awarded $7,500 grant to share ideas and best practices with others

DETROIT — The St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center has been a beacon of hope and support for youths and families on the city’s west side for six years.

Since 2017, the nonprofit has provided early childhood education, social and economic services, clothing and food assistance, athletic programs and after-school activities for youths of all ages in the two-story, 50,000-square-foot former school building of St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish.

The center was formed as a partnership between the parish and community and civic leaders in the mold of its predecessor, the Don Bosco Hall, to provide learning and growth opportunities in the Cody Rouge neighborhood centered around the principles of healthy living and sustainability.

In short, it's been a resounding success.

Now, its leaders are hoping that success can be replicated at other parishes throughout the city and Archdiocese of Detroit.

Wasko speaks with members of the United Way of Southeast Michigan, which sponsors the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center’s after-school STEAM program. It was partnership with outside organizations like the United Way that impressed the Catholic Foundation of Michigan’s Grant and Impact Committee, which awarded the center a $7,500 Spirit of Innovation Grant in December.
Wasko speaks with members of the United Way of Southeast Michigan, which sponsors the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center’s after-school STEAM program. It was partnership with outside organizations like the United Way that impressed the Catholic Foundation of Michigan’s Grant and Impact Committee, which awarded the center a $7,500 Spirit of Innovation Grant in December.

In December, the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center applied for and received the Catholic Foundation of Michigan's Spirit of Innovation Grant, which will provide $7,500 to allow the center to partner with other parishes to create a "scalable model" that would encourage "parishes and vulnerable communities to cooperatively assess needs, utilize excess facility capacity innovatively and establish a sustainable fiscal structure."

“We applied to the Catholic Foundation's Spirit of Innovation Grant, their premier grant, with the specific purpose of seeing whether or not this model could be replicated in other parishes in the city or elsewhere in the archdiocese,” Steve Wasko, executive director of the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center, told Detroit Catholic. “For a parish that doesn’t have a school but still has a school building, this is an option beyond just leasing to a charter school, but actively looking at the needs of the community.”

Wasko said the nonprofit has had preliminary conversations with St. Augustine and St. Monica Parish on Detroit's east side, and hopes to engage other parishes as well.

The first step is evaluating the needs of the surrounding community and identifying potential service partners, such as the relationships St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven enjoys with The Skillman Foundation, Gleaners Community Food Bank, the College for Creative Studies, Developing Kingdoms in Different Stages, and the WAY Academy.

Those partnerships developed over time as St. Suzanne surveyed the area to determine how the center could improve the lives of its neighbors, Wasko said.

Fareed Sajan, an instructor of the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center’s after-school STEAM program, gives a lesson on the water cycle in the outdoor classroom constructed in the parking lot behind St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish.
Fareed Sajan, an instructor of the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center’s after-school STEAM program, gives a lesson on the water cycle in the outdoor classroom constructed in the parking lot behind St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish.

The St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center has 20 different partner organizations listed on its website, along with its own programs, such as middle school and high school STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) activities.

Maria Scott, a member of the Catholic Foundation of Michigan's Grant and Impact Committee, said the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge model stood out among grant applicants.

“They found a need in this parish community," Scott said. "The site for the school was closed and was in need of upkeep, so what they did was reach out to the community. They found different needs in the neighborhood for young families, children and seniors, and now they are utilizing the school facility in full capacity."

Rather than lease the building to a charter school — as the parish had done before the community resource center was established — the parish sought partners who could pay rent and synergize with the parish's mission of evangelizing the community, Wasko said.

“It turned out to be a win-win-win. It's an opportunity for the parish to be directly invested in the neighborhood, but also a sound business plan that covers at least as much, if not more, then the parish’s operational expenses (compared to when the building was leased to a charter school),” Wasko said. “Above that, in the five years the center has existed, we’ve had almost a quarter-million dollars in capital improvements to the facility."

“In some ways, the stable presence of a community center is something many people take for granted if you live in suburban communities where you know where the public library branch is, the community rec center, the local high school with after-hours enrichment programs,” Wasko said. “This neighborhood (in northwest Detroit) hasn’t been that, so folks come up here for nearly everything. It’s not an overstatement to say in this neighborhood, in Cody Rouge, if you’re in need and don’t know where else to go, you can go to St. Suzanne.”
“In some ways, the stable presence of a community center is something many people take for granted if you live in suburban communities where you know where the public library branch is, the community rec center, the local high school with after-hours enrichment programs,” Wasko said. “This neighborhood (in northwest Detroit) hasn’t been that, so folks come up here for nearly everything. It’s not an overstatement to say in this neighborhood, in Cody Rouge, if you’re in need and don’t know where else to go, you can go to St. Suzanne.”

The income from organizations leasing space covers 90 percent of the utility costs of St. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Parish, in addition to all of the operation costs of the center, including staffing, custodial crews, security, trash removal and pest control, making the center a self-sustaining operation, Wasko said.

“A big difference with our setup is the ability to generate revenue to cover the parish operational costs, but doing so in a way that has the parish invested in the activity itself,” Wasko said. “We are covering all the costs and more, with our capital improvement investments, and at the same time doing good work in the community, empowering individuals in the Cody Rouge neighborhood day in and day out.”

Angela Moloney, president and CEO of the Catholic Foundation of Michigan, said the foundation was particularly impressed with the grassroots nature of the center, which found partners already operating in the area or who desired to have a presence in the neighborhood.

“When we think of Catholic social teaching, there is this idea of subsidiarity, doing things at the most basic community level. And that is really what this grant espouses," Moloney said. "They are coming together as a community to fund this project for themselves, by themselves.

“One of the things I’ve noticed when looking at their application is the number of organizations they partnered with,” Moloney said. “It didn’t just include their own parish community, but they went to groups outside the Church. When we read they were partnering with Trinity Health, the Sisters of Mercy, the Adrian Dominican Sisters, and United Way, in addition to all the folks they already know really well, it showed how they were working with others to unleash the Gospel.”

The St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center is seen as a success in Detroit in providing much-needed social programs in the neighborhood, an operation other parishes can replicate, Wasko says.
The St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center is seen as a success in Detroit in providing much-needed social programs in the neighborhood, an operation other parishes can replicate, Wasko says.

Wasko said the presence of the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center has been transformative for the neighborhood.

“In some ways, the stable presence of a community center is something many people take for granted if you live in suburban communities where you know where the public library branch is, the community rec center, the local high school with after-hours enrichment programs,” Wasko said. “This neighborhood there hasn’t been that, so folks come up here for nearly everything. It’s not an overstatement to say in this neighborhood, in Cody/Rouge, if you’re in need and don’t know where else to go, you can go to St. Suzanne.”

Beyond providing services to the neighborhood and being a social glue in the neighborhood, Wasko is most proud the center has become a place where people encounter the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“We are a full, happening, joyful place with a bunch of missionary disciples, trying to do the Lord’s work in this neighborhood,” Wasko added.



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