by | Dec 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It was just a building, without a name. When we first saw it, the front door glass was cracked, the floors were worn out and the ceiling vents were so crusted with dirt, it took an hour to clean one of them.

But slowly, slowly.

Volunteers came with brooms and rags. They came with mops. They came with brushes.

Then a generous man named Tom Montie brought gallons of paint.

Then a generous man named Rick Krupske brought boxes of new tiles.

Then generous people from Somerset Collection brought spare furniture.

And slowly, slowly, the idea – a health clinic for homeless children – took form. And last Wednesday, a ribbon was cut at 211 Glendale in Highland Park.

It was a happy and sad occasion. Happy, because there is such a need in our city for children of homeless parents to get basic medical care.

Sad, for the same reason.

Getting the job done

It was just a bunch of rooms, connected by a hallway with an office out front. When we first got there, the rooms were empty, the windows filthy, the walls pale.

But slowly, slowly.

With elbow grease, with buckets and rollers, the windows were cleared, the walls turned to grapefruit, lime and plum – upbeat, happy colors – and the empty rooms were filled with examining tables and drawers full of medical supplies.

Then a guy named Bill Popp from Dell delivered 10 computers.

Then a guy named Sean Mahone from Great Lakes Medical Supply delivered vaccines.

Then people from the Wayne State University College of Nursing got involved with staffing and direction.

And slowly, slowly, those rooms filled – first with nurses and doctors, many of whom volunteered their time, and next with patients, who wore old coats to battle the cold.

It was a happy and sad day. Happy, because a line stretched out the clinic door with mothers and children, all grateful to see a doctor, free of charge.

Sad, for the same reason.

No child left behind

The name of this building is the S.A.Y. Detroit Family Health Clinic. Operated with the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, the new clinic is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It provides van service to make pickups from area shelters. And it is one place where parents do not need to worry that, upon telling the front desk that their home is a shelter, their children might be taken away.

As the economy dumps more and more people onto the street, as our city’s unemployment climbs well north of 10%, as health care is but a dream for so many, the need for this facility may never have been stronger.

I started S.A.Y. Detroit as a charity a few years ago, because I couldn’t believe the way our homeless were sometimes treated. Today, I am better educated. The fact is, there is a whole other world living on Detroit’s streets, a world of survival, sleeping under different roofs each night, knowing who is offering food, what time, and where.

The alley whisper among homeless people would put many corporate communications to shame. When word gets out, it gets out.

Word is out on this clinic. It is the first of its kind in this country, as far as we can tell. It is the first to cater to homeless children, operate every day, and transport patients back and forth.

We are proud of opening this place, even as we wish we didn’t have to. It took more than a year of chasing contributions, and the help of a remarkable man named Jim McElya, the chairman of Cooper-Standard Automotive. Not only did he empty his own pockets several times, but I watched him arm-twist executives with the passion of a social activist.

Why, you might ask, would a highly paid CEO put in that kind of effort?

Maybe because, as a child, he was bounced through 11 different foster homes.

Which only proves you never know what a child can become.

And why every child deserves a healthy chance.

Slowly, slowly, you change the world. During Wednesday’s opening, a woman standing in line asked if I was connected to this place. I said I was. She pointed to her arm and said, “I have this pain in my elbow, see, and …”

Happily, I referred her to a doctor.

Which is how it should be for all of us, right?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or To help keep this clinic open, donate at, or by calling 313-993-4700.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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