Interfaith School Clean-up at Detroit’s Schulze Academy

Spruce08On Monday, April 3, students at Schulze Academy in Detroit got a terrific surprise. The school, which, like so many Detroit Public Schools buildings, has been descending into decrepitude due to lack of maintenance and repair funds, got a huge dose of interfaith love and a new coat of paint over the preceding weekend.

A coalition of interfaith partners showed up in force to organize the school library, clean and paint designated areas in the school, and work on the school’s grounds.

The coalition, led by the Jewish Community Relations Council / AJC (JCRC/AJC) and Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC) included Project Healthy Community, Repair the World, Summer in the City, Detroit Food Academy, and Food Corp. And Home Depot provided some of the supplies.

The effort grew out of JCRC’s annual Mitzvah Day, on which members of the Jewish community would relieve non-Jewish volunteers on Christmas. Mitzvah Day became a joint JCRC/AJC and MMCC effort through the collaboration of Robert Cohen and Dr.Muzammil Ahmed. Over lunch one day shortly before Christmas several years ago, Cohen and Ahmed were discussing Mitzvah Day when Ahmed observed that the Muslim community doesn’t celebrate Christmas either, so it would be a perfect opportunity to team up.

After a huge and enthusiastic turn-out for the annual Mitzvah Day this past year, JCRC/AJC president David Kurzmann, Serene Zeni from the MMCC, and JCRC/AJC community relations associate Naomi Levine met to discuss potential projects.

“People were calling me,” says Levine. “They finished their (Mitzvah Day) project. They wanted to know what they could do next.”

At the time, the news was full of stories about the teacher “sick-out” over the atrocious conditions in the Detroit Public Schools.

Kurzmann, Zeni and Levine thought that might be the perfect next project.

Levine says she called schools that JCRC/AJC sends tutors to for literacy programs and cold-called other schools. It was challenging to find a school that would open on a Sunday because of the cost of paying maintenance staff to work on a Sunday. Finally, she found a partner school, Nolan Elementary.

They held the first school spruce-up at Nolan 6 weeks after Mitzvah Day. Hundreds of people showed up to help.

The Huntington Post ran a piece with a video, and the event was covered by the WXYZ, CBS, and the Detroit Free Press.

The project was such a hit, that they decided to keep going.

“Schulze Academy was built in 1926 and basically not touched since. We got donations of toilet seats because many were not there or broken,” says Levine. “We’re not electricians or plumbers, so we kind of did what we can do.”

Since many schools no longer have librarians, the group cleaned and organized the library. They built and planted raised beds on the grounds so the year-round school can garden, replaced the broken or missing toilet seats, painted murals including ones of the water cycle and healthy plate designed by a Summer in the City volunteer artist for the cafeteria, repainted walls, and created inspirational artwork to hang around the building. (See Detroit News photos)

They also had designated a room where with tables and chairs and refreshments.

“Our mission is to build bridges,” says Levine. “So, we had a schmooze room where people could get to know one another, and talk about why they were giving up a Sunday afternoon to do this, and hopefully make a friend.”

The murals didn’t quite get finished, and there’s still work to do in the library, so the group will be back to Schulze.

“It’s good for the kids to know that the community is there for them, that we care that they are happy at school, that they feel good about their school,” says Levine.