With hammers, nails and weed-whackers, Our Lady of the Lakes students clean city neighborhood

Student volunteers from Our Lady of the Lakes Parish and school in Waterford came across all sorts of debris cleaning up alleys in a Detroit west-side neighborhood as part of the four-year Life Remodeled project, which seeks to beautify 400 city blocks. (Photos courtesy of Kathy Lewis)

DETROIT — The summer of 1967 was long and hot.

It boiled over on an early Sunday morning, July 23, when a police raid on a blind pig on 12th Street set off one of the deadliest and most destructive civil unrest in American history.

In a span of five days, an estimated 10,000 people participated in the riots, resulting in 43 deaths, 1,189 injuries, more than 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. Property damage ranged from $40 million to $45 million.

Fifty-two years later, on Aug. 5 through Aug. 10, Life Remodeled, a Detroit-based nonprofit organization whose motto describes its mission, “Remodeling Lives, One Neighborhood at a Time,” sponsored its annual Six-Day Project.

It was the third year of a four-year commitment to clean and beautify 400 city blocks in a four-square-mile neighborhood surrounding Central High School and the Durfee Innovation Society, a community center at 14th Street and Collingwood on the near west side where the riots began.

In the last two years, a combined 23,000 volunteers made critical repairs in more than 50 homes, boarded up nearly a thousand others, removed blight in a hundred alleys, installed bus shelters, picnic tables and grills in parks, and improved the football facilities at Central High.

There’s more. I suggest you Google “Life Remodeled” to gain an appreciation of what’s been accomplished and what’s planned for the revival of this area.
A little more than 10,000 volunteers showed up for this year’s project to clean some 300 alleyways of tires, trees, shrubs, rubbish, garbage, and anything else you might come across.

Around 9:30 on a humid Thursday morning, Aug. 8, 60 volunteers arrived from Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Waterford, including 18 football players, students, school staffers and parishioners, all under the guidance of campus minister Kathy Lewis.

They were divided into six 10-member groups each assigned to a section of the neighborhood bounded by Linwood, Grand, LaSalle and Pasadena streets, some three blocks north of Davison.

To get their story, your inimitable scribe trudged warily, watching my step and keeping an eye open for any critters down the alleys.

The first person I encountered was associate pastor Fr. Christopher Muer. “It was my day off, but I wanted to instill in the kids the importance of serving,” he said.

Fr. Christopher Muer, associate pastor at Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes, spent his off day helping students volunteer to clean a Detroit west-side neighborhood. 

Fr. Muer, 31, an alumnus of Grosse Pointe South, majored in construction management at Ferris State University before pursuing studies at Sacred Heart Major Seminary for the priesthood.

He gave me the quote of the day: “Hearts grow when we care for others.”

Grant Ross was doing some heavy lifting. “It’s important to put our talents to use for the community,” he said.

His particular talent is playing football. The 17-year-old senior will be the Lakers' starting quarterback for the fourth year in a row.

“I think we’ll have a great year,” he said. “I think we can win our league and hopefully make it to the Prep Bowl.”

When I told him the Prep Bowl will be played at Eastern Michigan University and not at Ford Field, he said: “That’ll be cool. I’ve never played there.”

Finally, I met up with Kathy Lewis. We had played phone tag for three to four days to set up this occasion.  

“Kids live in the suburbs, far removed from conditions like this,” she said. “It’s important they give back to the city.”

Lewis has been at Our Lady of the Lakes for 25 years as a teacher, middle school principal, and for the last four years as campus minister.

She said the hours students were putting into the alley cleanup project will go toward the 80 hours of community service, at the rate of 20 hours a year, students must earn before graduation.

She mentioned a variety of opportunities for students to meet their goal. Among them, St. Leo’s Kitchen, the Manna Soup Kitchen, Lourdes nursing home, the Capuchins, in addition to other ways that pop up during the year.

Several students will attend the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis in November.

We came across senior Pat Morgan and sophomore Nate Asai on their way to refill gas for their weed whacker.

“Helping is giving me a rush,” Asai said. “It makes me feel good inside.”

About the crucifix he was wearing around his neck, I asked, “Do you wear it all the time?”

“Yes, I am a sinner,” he said. “The medal reminds me that every sin I commit puts another nail in Jesus’ cross. It helps me be a good person.”

Theology teacher Ann Marie Chambers put the service the kids were performing in perspective: “What we are doing is what it means to be a Christian. Wherever there is a need we ought to try to fill it.”

On my return trip through a bit spiffier alley, I spotted a man leaning against his backyard fence.

“What do you think about all of this?” I asked.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the alley this clean,” he replied.

I mentioned to Lewis that the kids probably knew next to nothing about the riots so long ago and wondered if they understood the impact they were making for the residents of this neighborhood and the city at large.

“Perhaps their grandparents told them about what happened, or they read or heard something somewhere,” she said. “But I sense they understand.”

To paraphrase what Fr. Muer said: “Their hearts grew when they cared to help out.”

Contact Don Horkey at [email protected].