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Our Readers Help S.A.Y. Detroit Salvage Lives

Last year, it was nothing more than a dusty storage area. Old pipes. Dirty walls. Dim lighting. Boxes piled high. It was the southeastern corner of a homeless shelter building operated by the Michigan Veterans Foundation.

Through these doors come 160 veterans a day, men who have served this country, worn the uniform, in some cases taken bullets or shrapnel, and who are now, for whatever reason, homeless.

“We could really use a kitchen,” the executive director, Tobi Geibig, told me back then.

“Where would you put it?” I asked.

He pointed to the boxes and the dusty walls.

“Here,” he said.

Well, last Monday, just after noon, a ribbon was cut, and a small parade of veterans and staff and guests entered that once-dingy space and saw a gleaming new kitchen of shiny tile floors, plenty of tables, refrigeration units, a giant grill, a prep area, warming bins, deep fryers, even a pizza oven. And a feast was served.

How do you cross the bridge from hope to help?

You build it.

This new kitchen was completed with $60,000 that you donated. That’s right. You. During Super Bowl week in 2006, I wrote a column after spending the night at a Detroit homeless shelter. The column pointed out that our city was providing a three-day Super Bowl party for our homeless, which conveniently got them off our streets while the tourists were in town.

But that Monday morning, the party was over. And those homeless were back into the snow.

In that column, I sought to raise enough money to keep the level of care we provided on Super Bowl weekend sustained until the end of the winter. It seemed the least we could do.

As it turned out, it was.

The most we could do was much more impressive.

Generosity has life of its own

Thanks to the generosity of readers as far away as Ireland and as close as the Ilitch family, more than $300,000 was raised from that column. A book release fund-raiser we held last year at the Fox Theatre – with Tony Bennett, Hank Azaria and Joe Dumars – raised another $100,000. People continued to contribute with checks, with pledges, with Easter Bunny photo money, with small bills in licked envelopes. And it became clear that this thing had taken on a life of its own.

So we formed a full-fledged charity. It’s called S.A.Y. Detroit. The letters stand for Super All Year – instead of Super for a weekend, or a football game – and the mission statement was simple: Every dollar would be spent on improving the lives of Detroit’s homeless and the shelters that serve them. With one caveat:

Not a dime would go to salaries, administration or expenses.

If you couldn’t touch it, we weren’t funding it.

Well, you have made the charity far more powerful than anyone imagined. And as its codirector – with Chad Audi, chief executive officer of the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries – it is time to report back the good you have done.

Thanks to you, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit, which dates to the Great Depression, was able to buy milk for an entire year. That cost $15,000. You provided it.

Thanks to you, Cass Community Social Services was able to buy 200 mattresses for its clients. That took $20,000. You provided it.

Thanks to you, the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries has been able to do all of the following: extend its hours to 24 hours a day for the winters, hire a mental health professional to work with the clients, purchase a van that can transport any homeless person from anywhere in the city to the mission’s front door. (The van reads “S.A.Y Detroit” on the side.)

These projects required $60,000. You provided it.

Gifts help the children

Wait. There’s more.

In its main building off Peterboro Street, COTS (Coalition On Temporary Shelter) had a large garage that was expendable. For a long time, Cheryl P. Johnson, the CEO, had a dream of creating a child-care facility where homeless mothers and fathers could leave their young children while they looked for work. “After all,” she says, “you can imagine toting around an infant to a job interview.”

Still, there were never enough funds to make it happen. Until last year. Thanks to S.A.Y. Detroit through a huge contribution from Ilitch Charities for Children, enough money was raised (about $200,000) to finish constructing a full-fledged facility: a play area, a welcoming area, a food prep area, even Internet cameras for parents to check up on their kids via computer.

It’s called the Bright Beginnings Child Development Center.

And it is about to open its doors.

“It’s added a whole other dimension that we didn’t have before,” Johnson says. “This was always a dream. But we could never get our hands around paying for it.”

The list goes on. Another $30,000 to the Neighborhood Service Organization to continue its food services to the city’s neediest. Another $8,000 for the New Day Multi-Purpose Center to feed its needy. Another $20,000 to the Genesis House II facility, which provides transition and housing for women and children. Their floors and the beds desperately needed renovation. Your distributions provided that.

And, of course, most recently, the kitchen for our veterans. There is a good story with that one. Along the way, as the storage area turned into a construction area, I made a request. Could the shelter use some of the veterans to help build the kitchen? Wouldn’t that give them more ownership?

They happily agreed. One of the crew was named Mark Kline, a former Army combat engineer. He may be homeless, but he is not helpless. He pitched in, doing everything from concrete work, plumbing, installing the circuit breakers and working on the ceiling.

And on Monday, Mark was in full Army battle dress uniform, commanding the color guard at the ribbon cutting. Then he proudly marched down the aisle and toward the kitchen he helped build.

“Without S.A.Y. Detroit having done for us what it did, we would not have had this kitchen,” says Tyrone Chatman, the associate director. “We didn’t have it before. You guys came, and now we do.”

I wish you could have seen all the faces in line for food that day. The mood was exultant. The meal was abundant. And for a few precious hours, the men could forget the bad fate that left them without a kitchen. Because they had a kitchen of their own.

They say, be careful what you wish for, and overseeing a charity wasn’t what I had in mind the day I wrote that column. But, as anyone in a shelter will tell you, who can really plan his life? You cross the bridges you build. As long as there are homeless in this city, I hope and plan on this charity being around to help them. And with your help, it will be. Thank you.

To contribute to the charity, go to SAYDetroit.com. Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.

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