How one west sider fights for Detroit's kids

click to enlarge Greg Jolly - PHOTO BY MICHAEL JACKMAN
Photo by Michael Jackman
Greg Jolly

When was the last time you heard somebody say that Detroit’s biggest asset is its young people?

Has it been a while? If so, isn't that sort of strange? After all, people seem more eager to reassess the city than ever, and cite as assets many of the things that were called liabilities a decade ago: historic architecture, dive bars, working-class heritage, down-at-the-heels neighborhoods. But as welcome as those re-evaluations are, who is willing to talk about the potential of the city’s more than 150,000 minors? In 20 years, they’ll be our working-age adults in what should be the prime of their lives.

That topic is something a guy named Greg Jolly thinks about quite a bit. He’s a thirtysomething guy who knows the value of young Detroiters. At first glance, he may not look like the sort of guy who’d work with young people, given his tattoos and full beard. Look more closely and you’ll notice his voice is gentle, there are wise streaks of gray in his hair, and that his tattoos are of his family. He’s a sincere, churchgoing neighborhood guy who works with friends and neighbors from his west side neighborhood to try to turn young kids’ lives around.

And Jolly knows, you’ve got to reach kids when they’re young. You need to be there all along the way, not just once they start having problems. All the laptops and college scholarships in the world won’t help unless the resources for support are there when kids are still kids. They need guidance to help them sidestep the cycles of social prejudice, poverty, and prison, long before it’s time to gather those college applications.

People like Greg Jolly don’t often appear on the glossy pages of a nonprofit’s brochure. They’re far away from the smiling, well-groomed boardmembers of the many public-private partnerships concerned with urban issues. Instead, people like Jolly struggle and make do, often getting assistance from people and institutions who can least afford to offer it, including churches that rely on the charity of poor communities of color.

For Jolly, the journey started in 2012, with something as simple as rounding up the young guys in the neighborhood to board up buildings. “I got all the young guys from the neighborhood and boarded up all the vacant houses,” Jolly says. “We cut all the grass, and stuff like that, it was on the news.”

It has evolved into a program, Vision of Hope, that recruits young people for jobs such as checking in on elderly residents who live next to vacant houses, cutting their grass, and boarding up any recently vacated properties. But the cutting grass and securing houses are just part of Vision of Hope’s mission: to help build young people’s sense of community, and to help them avoid lives of “misery, pain, and loneliness.”

“A lot of our robberies and stuff like that that are occurring is through the youth, because they have no guidance out here,” Jolly says. “We need to teach them what they really need, teach them how to deal with low self-esteem, anger, lying, stealing, victimization, their past.” He adds that they need help with very basic practical matters, pointing out that many of the kids don’t even know how to open their own bank accounts.

“They think they know everything, and their thinking will get them I trouble,” Jolly says. “See, it’s the thinking process, a pattern they don’t know nothing about, because a lot of us are not taught a lot of things. They come straight out the house and go to the corner store. All they see is drugs. They can go in the corner store or the gas station and buy loose cigarettes, because there’s no dignity out there anymore Everybody is just about a dollar, instead of taking their old values and bringing them to the kids. And a lot of younger mothers that are having kids are trying to be the kid’s friend instead of being a parent. They’re sitting down and getting high with their kids in this generation.”

If that sounds extreme, it’s something Jolly is well aware of. He grew up in the Kings Arms Motel at 470 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. He says, “My daddy was a heroin addict and my mom used crack. She just died of alcoholism last year.”

It’s the kind of upbringing that blunts the joy of youth, but provides rare wisdom in due time. “When you’re growing up where I grew up at, it’s a whole different way,” Jolly says. “People don’t come down in the community trying to reach out to us. I grew up not knowing where my mom or daddy was at 14 years old in the Cass Corridor, and had to come up with money every morning give the guy at the front desk before he put me out. I begged the judge to lock me up at 15. I begged her. ’Cause I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from, where I was gonna sleep at, nothing. Just me and my girlfriend. And there’s kids out here like that. They run away from home ’cause they ready to go to what they think is the fast life: Rims, money in your pocket, jewelry. … All that is nothing. I can teach you how to get that the right way. Instead of going out here and doing nonsense, I started listening. When I started getting shot, after that I said. ‘I’m through with the streets. It’s time for me to wake up and do what God placed me here for, and that’s to be able to speak and help others.’ So I try to take my wisdom, my knowledge, and my experience, and help them change their life.”

And so where other people just see poorly behaved, maladjusted children, Jolly tends to see a bit more. “There’s a 6-year-old boy who stays across the street from my aunt’s house,” Jolly says, as if by example. “He goes to school every day and gets into a fight. You know the reason for him getting into a fight? ’Cause kids are making fun of the clothes he got on. ’Cause his mom takes his money and does other things with it, instead of doing what right.”

It’s that kind of perception that helps make Jolly a fit mentor for kids others might just see as hard cases. “Right now, I’m mentoring five kids,” Jolly says. “I’m trying to get more people involved. These old vacant schools, we can fix them up and at the same time teach kids life skills. They city of Detroit ain’t doing nothing with them. They only leave them out for dangerous purposes. People can walk past and snatch our kids, snatch our daughters into a vacant school. And they just leave them up. We can fix downtown all up. But what about the people in the inner city that don’t have no help, don’t have no guidance, don’t know nothing about voting?”

Jolly says he attracts kids by throwing events. “That’s how I get their attention,” he says. “I know a majority of them like rap, so I contact local rappers and have them come here and give talks to them. You do different things like that, and they’re willing to talk to you.” When he's able, summer Sundays find him and the Vision of Hope crew holding events at a parking lot for a local business on Linwood Avenue. Volunteers will provide free food for kids, and some events might feature his pal DJ Wil, who comes out to spin records, sometimes for dance performances from the DJ Jam Crew. Some of the gatherings have even featured bounce houses, and petting zoos.

“There’s lots of positive stuff,” Jolly says. “Seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces is what gets me. ’Cause ain’t nobody brought a whole petting zoo down to the inner city, and let the kids ride horses and all that, bring the zoo to them.”

Petting zoos, shoe drives, and neighborhood cleanups are just maintenance, but when something really bad happens, neighbors rally around those who need a pick-me-up. When 12-year-old neighbor Michael Green was injured in a drive-by shooting at a nearby basketball court, Jolly and others helped raise money to send him to basketball camp, with the Detroit Pistons kicking in the balance.

Unfortunately, in these days of government austerity, Jolly says it only gets harder to help the youth find a way. “The legislators are closing down all the youth programs,” Jolly says. He’s particularly upset by the closing of the W.J. Maxey Boys Training School near Ann Arbor last year. “Maybe they feel that they shouldn’t even have programs anymore. But there were people in Green Oaks Township fighting for the boys’ training schools. … Maxey was a good facility for them, because, before they let you back into the community, they were taking them out and getting them jobs: Burger King, Little Caesar’s, all of that. They was giving them jobs and teaching them, taking them to Briarwood Mall, teaching them how to go and do household things. Stuff like etiquette, how to wear a suit, how to talk in an interview. You know, if they’re not taught that, then when it’s time to go get a job they don’t know nothing about it.”

And so the void only continues to grow for the children of Detroit. In an ideal world, there’d be real reformatories and schools to help catch young people when they fall, with plenty of funding for some of creative ideas to engage children before they stumble. Not every vacant lot has to be a community garden, for instance. One of Jolly’s more unusual ideas is to collect the city’s old tires, build a track, and run an informal class teaching kids how to refurbish old engines. The result would be a vacant lot turned into a go-cart track.

“I want to teach the kids about small engines, how to deal with lawnmowers, how to build their own go-carts and stuff like that,” Jolly says. “It’s a lot different when you teach them stuff that’s fun.”

Despite the interesting idea, the chances of somebody like Jolly gaining access to the funding required to run a go-cart training program seem slim. Millions of dollars in grants will pass through the west side of Detroit this year, but Jolly will likely continue to rely on local churches and neighbors to cobble together the program of Sunday barbecues in the nearby parking lot, enlivened by hip-hop DJs and inspirational speeches from local pastors. At least it’s something.

“I just take the knowledge and the wisdom that comes with it and spread it, and do my job,” Jolly says. “I was shot three times with an AK-47 and lived. I was shot with a 12-gauge shotgun in my hand and lived. I have half of my kidney gone, my spleen removed, everything. That’s how I know there’s a God. And I’m trying to stop the next person from making the same mistakes I made so they don’t have to go through it. I want to be able to show them there’s other ways, other people.”

Vision of Hope has a summer Sunday event featuring a back-to-school giveaway, bounce houses, a petting zoo with ponies, free food, and more. Donations of clothes and nonperishable food for flood victims in Baton Rouge are requested. The event begins around noon on Sunday, Aug. 28, at 8105 Linwood St., Detroit; call 586-339-6411 for more information. Want to help Jolly and his kids? Email [email protected]

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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