New folks on block turn it around

by | Mar 11, 2012 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

At a time when everyone was moving out of Detroit, they moved in.

In a world where everyone wants bigger and better, they went smaller and worse.

In a country where people often pay lip service to making a difference in their community, they actually are building a community – one reclaimed house at a time.

Larry and Marilyn Johnson were a fairly typical white, suburban couple back in the 1990s, when they sold their computer business. They found themselves with money and time. Maybe too much time.

“I remember coming in from a golf game and Larry asking me how my game was, and I just started crying,” Marilyn remembers. “I said, ‘My life has no purpose.'”

So they started volunteering. They helped at shelters. They worked with treatment programs. Right away, they noticed the same faces coming back every few months – get sober, go out, use again, come back. “It was like a reunion,” Marilyn says.

The only way to stop the revolving door, they decided, was to take it off its hinges. Replace it with four walls of community.

And so they did.

From the suburbs to the city

The program they started is called LifeBUILDERS. It began with one modest house on Detroit’s east side. Women looking to break free from substance abuse could stay there. The Johnsons kept it small, made sure everyone nurtured one another and put themselves smack in the middle of it.

The result was a near-zero recidivism rate. One house led to another and another, until they basically operated an entire block of homes and apartments, filled with people who were looking for a better life.

The houses surrounded a headquarters on Kelly near 8 Mile Road where activities, meetings and kids programs were held. In every way, the Johnsons were building a neighborhood – mostly from reclaiming rotted buildings that had been used for the drug trade.

And then, this year, Larry and Marilyn took their biggest leap. They left their well-to-do Grosse Pointe home and moved into a 2,000-square-foot place, right alongside the people they are helping.

It was – it is – a remarkable sacrifice. Many people talk about making the city better. The Johnsons are doing it with a ZIP code change. As for giving up the big house, the fancy kitchen and the closet stuffed with clothes?

“Cathartic,” is how Marilyn describes it.

Money to do so much more

LifeBUILDERS is a faith-based group. That needs to be said. Many of the activities and philosophies revolve around a Christian point of view. But the idea of a nurturing community does not belong to any one religion. And the idea of taking over abandoned buildings and turning them into thriving homes should not be pigeonholed by a category.

The fact is, a small decaying section of Detroit is now blossoming because of one couple’s giant efforts.

Here is where the rest of us can help. LifeBUILDERS is involved in a national contest through Home Depot to win a $250,000 grant. Whoever gets the most online votes wins. If you believe in the concept, and think Detroit is a deserving place for such a reward, you can go to to vote. The finalists – which span the country – include three other worthy area organizations: Jewish Family Services, Ronald McDonald House of Detroit and Taylor VFW Post 4422. A vote for any of them is a good thing.

Meanwhile, how inspiring is it to see a couple go from a golf course to a needy city block – and talk as if they are the lucky ones?

“One of our neighbors, six months ago, said he and his wife were going to sell their house, because, he said, ‘Hope was gone,'” Larry recalls. “He decided to stay.”

In a city where too many are going the opposite direction, that is geographic good news. It takes a lot to work your whole life to a wealthy level, then turn around and spend your retirement with those less fortunate.

Then again, maybe spreading hope is as rich as you can get.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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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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