Stir It Up: Detroit students bond through goodwill

Aug 17, 2016 at 4:00 am

What makes one idea stand out is when somebody gets busy and makes it count for something — which brings us to the story of Amera Allison, Chanel Thomas, and how they spent their summer.

Allison's mother told her that she should do something good for the community.

Allison, who just graduated from Henry Ford Academy School for Creative Studies, thought it was sound advice. She brought it up to another graduate, Chanel Thomas, who lived in the neighborhood near Forest and Burns on the east side. The girls knew each other from school and were friendly, but hadn't become close. Still, Chanel bought into the idea and they began tossing around ideas.

They settled on Kulture Kids, a summer enrichment program of sorts built around African culture and history for kids 2-½ to 12. They circulated a flyer around the neighborhood. Kulture Kids would meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Pingree Park. It would cost $2.50 per day to cover arts materials and snacks. They made it up as they went.

"We didn't have any connections at all," says Thomas.

But they found what they needed when they needed it. A GoFundMe campaign netted them $160, so they could ease up on the $2.50 charge — although some parents paid it anyhow. They average about 15 youth per session, and there are a few older kids who help out.

The first day they arrived at the park, the girls had to move a picnic table. The only way they could do it was by flipping the table over and over to get it where they wanted it. That attracted attention. An 80-year-old woman who lives across from the park thought they were vandals and called the police. By the time police arrived, the girls had started their program, and the officers just waved and kept going.

Later, the older woman went to the park to ask what the kids were up to. The woman was so excited when she found that they were doing something positive for the neighborhood that she became an ally. She brought them a pitcher of Kool-Aid that first day. The kids now know her as Mama Knoxx, and she lets the Kulture Kids use her bathroom.

About 15 kids show up for the program on a given day. It starts with Circle Time, when they sit and introduce themselves using a Yoruba greeting, followed by an ice breaker game while African house music plays. Then it's story time and snack time, with food donated by a neighborhood mother who wants to help.

"That's a thing where we had to deal with what is available," says Thomas. "We wanted to have African food."

After the snack, they have a class or an activity. Classes are taught by neighborhood folk who have knowledge on a subject. Sometimes Allison and Thomas get busy on the internet to augment information to pass on to the youngsters. There have been classes on the ancient Metu Neter language and symbols, hieroglyphics, and history of the Zulu nation. Activities have included painting medallions and making maracas. They sing, dance, and play the djembe drum. At the end of the day, they hold hands and form a pinwheel hug.

"We put whoever we feel needs the hug that day in the middle," says Allison.

Speaking of hugs: Whenever you get a bunch of kids together, there will be moments when discipline breaks down. However, Allison and Thomas have a pretty good way to maintain order.

"We make them hug a tree," says Allison.

If it's more than one, all of the disorderly kids have to hold hands around a tree until they are feeling more cooperative. Tree hugging isn't something one thinks of in Detroit, but it does seem a novel way to change people's behavior. It has provoked confusion — and laughter.

Kulture Kids ran for four weeks this summer and finished with a small festival. The kids displayed their art, and there was a talent show, face painting, and dancing.

The whole thing has been a learning experience for Allison and Thompson. They've picked up some problem-solving skills and learned how to network.

"Next year, we're going to build on the contacts we developed this year," says Thomas, the more outspoken of the two.

Both young ladies plan to study business at college. Allison is going to the University of Arkansas and Thomas is headed to Columbia in Chicago. Thomas, who has a camera hanging around her neck much of the time, plans to keep a focus on fashion photography. Her photos have documented the summer's activities and can be seen on Facebook on the Kulture Kids page.

They hope to build on their success next year with an earlier start and up to eight weeks of activities. They also hope to build on a friendship that blossomed this summer.

"We weren't close before," says Allison. "We've become partners."

"We're like sisters," says Thomas.

More than anything else that came out of Kulture Kids, their relationship might be the most important as they head for distant places to pursue dreams.

"We've got to find a way to say connected," says Allison.

I think they already have.