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GROUP DOING GOOD STILL NEEDS A HAND

All they want is an office, or even a few desks in someone else’s office. A telephone. A chair. A place to conduct business. It isn’t much.

But you never know when you ask for help.

Take Saturday morning. It was raining in Detroit, cloudy, depressing. A perfect day to sleep in. Baseball players were sleeping in, because, despite an average salary of over $1 million a year, things are just so lousy, they had to go on strike.

Hockey players were sleeping in, because, despite new popularity and a lucrative TV deal, things are just so lousy, the owners had to postpone the season.

Corporate executives were sleeping in, because, after all, it was Saturday, and rain would douse the golf course. TV stars, bankers, doctors, builders, attorneys, all stretching in bed, enjoying their leisure, because, in their minds, they’d earned it.

Meanwhile, just south of Eight Mile Road, in a badly painted, warehoused-sized building at the Michigan Fairgrounds, nearly 1000 people were wide awake, scurrying back and forth, ready for work. They got no money. Their tasks would be hard. Physical labor. Strange surroundings. It would take them all day, and there would be no overtime. Their “perks” consisted of coffee in styrofoam cups and cold bagels. They stood at attention as their numbers were called and they headed out into the rain.

You talk about casino gambling. You talk about a new stadium. All these things that are supposed to save Detroit. Here, inside this cavernous warehouse, was the only thing that will really do it. Attitude. The spirit to take things into our own hands. Here, dressed in T-shirts, were volunteers from suburbs and city, black and white, rich and poor. They went into the drizzle with brushes, brooms, hammers, teaching skills. They were unified, thanks to the efforts of Volunteer Impact.

The one that can’t get an office. She didn’t have to help

Now, let me say right here I get 2,000 requests a year to write about charitable groups. I say a reluctant no to almost all of them. How could you help one and not the other?

But this was not a group that asked me for publicity. I noticed it several years ago, when it first began, as an answer for people who were trying to help people but didn’t know how. The idea came to an energized woman named Liz Kanter, who lived in the suburbs and could have stayed there, quite happily, without any concern for others.

Instead, she got a few friends together in her living room, and they got a few friends, and next thing you knew, they were having their first Volunteer-A-Thon, with a few hundred people. And on Saturday, they had their third. Through sheer determination, Volunteer Impact has raised its own money, established year-long volunteers to 60 different agencies, and gathered 3,800 people who want to help their neighbors. They have brochures, lists, contacts.

What they don’t have is an office. No place to call home. Kanter takes a lion’s share of the phone calls at her real job — she does have to pay rent
— at an estate planning firm that, quite frankly, is getting tired of her being on phone all the time for volunteer work that doesn’t bring in money.

“I’ll probably get fired,” she says, still smiling, because you can’t crush spirit like this easily. Still, Volunteer Impact has been seeking office space for six months, hoping someone would donate a place, even an old one —

Kanter’s people would fix it up — but no takers. And it’s tax deductible!

This astounds me. If Detroit has anything in abundance, it’s empty buildings. A chance to pitch in

There’s a story about Jean Jusserand, the famous French diplomat, who was talking once with Mrs. Teddy Roosevelt. The president’s wife couldn’t understand why the French were so heavily armed on their borders. “Why don’t you learn from Canada and the U.S.?” she asked. “We have nearly 3000 miles of peaceful frontier.” The Frenchman smiled. “Well, Madame,” he said. “Perhaps we could exchange neighbors.”

How you live depends on how you live together. And how metro Detroit lives on both sides of Eight Mile Road will never hinge on a casino. It will hinge on the attitude of strangers to strangers.

Here is what strangers did for strangers Saturday: They went to the Detroit Public Library, to tutor city kids in English and math. They went to Finney High School, to help kids get immunized against diseases. They delivered food, restored buildings, fixed theaters, planted trees.

Please don’t tell me a group that can inspire all this can’t find a rent-free home in Detroit. You want a chance to help? Call Liz Kanter at 1-810-357-2424. Get your hands dirty, like 1,000 good people did Saturday.

Unlike the French, we don’t need new neighbors. We just need to get ours talking to each other.

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