Angela Reyes was tired of burying children in Southwest Detroit. 

Twenty years ago, she was watching neighborhood teens fall victim to the gang violence in the area. So, in the living room of her home, she decided to work with the troubled youth rather than shun them.

Born in Southwest, Reyes became a mother of four and eventually a grandmother of seven. She would also become a parental figure to hundreds of at-risk youth through the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, which she founded in 1997.

Over two decades later, DHDC has moved from Reyes’ home to a location in Vernor Highway and now on Trumbull Avenue in Corktown. It has been a stable nonprofit since its launch and, notably, does not receive federal funding for its operations. 

DHDC provides services to the community through five programs, which have expanded into 15 different sectors for families, youth and returning citizens. For adults, the corporation offers ranges of English as Second Language classes, General Education Diploma classes, social justice services, tobacco-prevention programs, housing and counseling programs and childcare services for those unable to find babysitters while attending one of these courses.

According to the Center for Leadership Innovation, a national nonprofit organization, DHDC is one of “16 Michigan-based Latino nonprofit organizations serving low-income communities (that) were selected to participate in the (Michigan Latino Nonprofit Leadership) Academy.”

However, DHDC is not the biggest, but rather the baby organization of the Academy and in southwest Detroit.

“I believe what separates DHDC from the other organizations is that we have a holistic approach to our services,” says Juan Alfaro, housing and counselor coordinator at the DHDC. “I believe the staff are carefully selected and that our director is open to using different approaches to help our clients. Other organizations have been following the same recipe for many years and have seen their organizations dwindle, while DHDC has continued to flourish and gain strength.”

Big goals, funding challenges

David Jimenez, 47, used to be an Insane Spanish Cobras gang member but has since evolved into one of the most well-known faces of the DHDC. He spent 15 years in prison before he met Reyes in 1998 when he was placed in her GRACE program — Gang Retirement and Continuing Education and Employment. 

He made it through the program, but ended up back in prison for five more years. After he was released, he found himself at DHDC doing community service; “that was the day everything changed for me,” he says. Jimenez has been working at DHDC for over 10 years now.

“She gave me an opportunity, a small part-time job. Part-time job turned into a full-time job. I got to know the building well and one day, after my first year, she handed me the keys and said, ‘You’re the building manager.’ I was very proud.”

The DHDC serves over 5,000 clients a year, but Alfaro says their biggest challenge is obtaining funding to keep providing these services.

“We are a small organization compared to many in Detroit,” he says. “When one thinks of Detroit, the Latino population is not well known as others. So, getting these large foundations aware and give to our work sometimes is a little harder.”

For children, DHDC offers an Urban Arts Academy, a summer youth program, Youth Ambassador Scholarship Program, music labs, art therapy, safe-sex classes and Michigan FIRST For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology International Robotics Program.

The after-school programs have grown from a STEM program to a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) program. Adding arts was necessary due to arts programs being pared down in public schools in the area. Students have covered the dusty off-white warehouse with graffiti so much that the doors are practically camouflaged. 

Since the robotics program launched three years ago, they have competed at state, national and international levels. They have seven different robotics teams, five from different schools and another after school all-girls program that went competed in Worlds in St. Louis last year.

The DHDC robotics team, Wrecking Crew 57-56, started preseason prepping in October and the competition begins in January and builds through April. Engineers from General Motors, Comcast, Ford Motor Company and more have found their way to the center to volunteer with robotics every Tuesday and Thursday evening. The volunteer list has 50 professionals signed up for 150 kids that are expected to arrive the first week in January.

Now 32, Jonathan Rodriguez grew up in the program when he was 11. After returning from South Carolina where he studied automotive NASCAR technology, he met his wife, Rosie, who also works at the center handling volunteering and social work, and took over the after-school program, robotics and the entire warehouse.

“Once you get in here, you’re stuck here. It’s addictive,” he says. “Usually in the neighborhood, you don’t do too much good, you know. When you get here and you start doing good, it’s rewarding and you end up getting addicted to it. 

There are grants that pay for rental costs, but DHDC is an after-school program. So, they are solely dependent on donations.

“We started off with just four pieces of equipment and everything we have has been given, donated or fundraised for,” he adds. “No bank funding. Since we are not a business, we don’t make profit. The rent is a little bit of a pickle since it’s not included in the grants. (And) usually everything we acquire are for the overhead of the grant, toiletries, rent, electrical, water. Grants pay for personnel, maybe gas and food and that’s about it.”

Program Director Lex Zavala has been working at the DHDC for 13 years, but he also grew up in the program and was in Reyes’ first youth program group.

“I got into some trouble after that for a while. After that, started volunteering and from there started doing community work and was hired as a community organizer. From there, moved to the youth department and started the Urban Arts Academy, which was one of the first art programs we had here. I help start the music studio that began with a laptop, a boom box and a little phone camera. Back then, there was no heat. We finally got heating and cooling last year,” he says.

Students are picked to be in the program by school or program referrals, but they also don’t turn students away who hear from word of mouth. Zavala says that they target the “influential youth,” or kids who have leadership skills, but might be using them in the wrong way.

“We like to work with the kids and the people in the communities that other people have trouble with. Kids that get the other kids amped up to yell at the teacher. We target those kids, work with that one kid and make them become a leader.”

But just as Rodriguez says, Zavala also notes that rent is one of DHDC’s biggest challenges. Zavala says rent is about $200,000 for just the robotics program.

“We spent about $186,000 last year with grants from the Skillman Foundation, Comcast, donations and more. We went way over what we have. It didn’t even cover half of what we needed,” Rodriguez says. “We made a splash, though. Nothing like this is happening here and FIRST is using us as a model to help create this in other cities.”

"We’ve created those services, but we can only pull so many miracles."

For those with barriers

Alfaro met Reyes at a leadership conference five years ago and says he believes DHDC was created with the intention of becoming a nonprofit. However, Alfaro says Reyes’ vision has grown to be more than it was originally set out to.

“Sometimes, (becoming a nonprofit) does take time to become incorporated,” he says. “There are a lot of new challenges that we face in our generation that wasn’t around 20 years ago. As there are some things that have not changed, I believe that you need staff that are cultural competent to the clients they serve.”

In February, it will have been three years since Alfaro started at DHDC. Like the majority of the staff, he serves more than that role. His main focus is to help the niche part of the community that face tougher barriers, meaning those who only speak Spanish and are undocumented have tougher barriers to homeownership. He remodeled the program to fit those needs.

“I tell people if you need me to read your lease or your land contract to explain it to you, I can. Don’t sign nothing until you come talk to me. I’m here for you. I’m free service,” Alfaro says.

Through their community partnerships with the Detroit Land Bank Authority and Wayne County Alfaro and DHDC have been able to get individuals the knowledge to purchase homes off the auctions at a low cost. Anyone who gets a referral through the agency receives a 20 percent off discount with the Detroit Land Bank on their bid.

“Say you went to a bank and you wanted to get this $100,000 house and you would go to a housing counselor and I would say, ‘You know what, Sarah, you can’t afford a $100,000 home. They want to give it to you because they want you to spend money, because the banks don’t care.’ I’m gonna be here as a housing counselor, to tell you the truth, and say, ‘No I think it’s best to stay within your means.’ That’s not happening in Detroit. My clients aren’t going to a National City or a Citizen Bank,” Alfaro says.

One of his biggest frustrations is that clients come to him with their issue when it’s too late.

“They sign a bad land contract and they lost their house or rental tenant issues because they didn’t sign a lease,” he said. “What makes it even worse Sarah, is when a Latino landlord does it to a recent immigrant because we do have multiple generations here, and they know they can take advantage of them and it’s horrible.”

Of the other organizations that offer housing consultations, Southwest Solutions, started in 1972, is located in Southwest Detroit but does not accommodate those without an identification card or Social Security number.

“We all work together here. If we find a kid who’s not doing good in school, come to find out it’s because he doesn’t have a roof over his head. It’s hard. We’ve created those services, but we can only pull so many miracles,” Alfaro says. “I’m not here to make money, I don’t work on commission. Our goal is just to help families and help improve our neighborhood…that’s what we all do.”     

‘We are the safety net’

After Reyes outgrew her location on Vernor, she chose 1211 Trumbull Ave. to become the new center in 2001 even though it was located in Corktown and not in Southwest. There’s a reason for that, though.

“She chose this spot because it’s neutral territory. People know all the gang work she used to do and those gang-affiliated or not, know that this is a safe haven for everybody. The gang stuff leaves at the door when you walk in,” Alfaro says. “I’ve never seen anything happen with the guys in here. If anything, it’s because of a girl they’re fighting over, or something stupid. Angie created this for them, they know that.”

DHDC’s re-entry services specifically works with people leaving gangs or prisons. The Case Management program, for example, provides group and mentor services: “Participants interact with others who have managed to lead a drug-free life, stay out of gangs, live a non-criminal lifestyle and cope with issues around gang participation,” reads a description on DHDC’s website. 

The other sector of the Case Management program is the Freedom Ink tattoo-removal by laser program, in collaboration with Dr. Eric Seiger and the Skin and Vein Center. The aforementioned Jimenez, the first participant of Freedom Ink, says the program was similar to Reyes’ previous GRACE program. (“I was tagged all up,” Jimenez says. “Seven years ago, Dr. Seiger came in and offered a chance for people to erase their past decisions for $25 a session.”)

Zavala says they face numerous issues within targeted programs like the re-entry program. “Especially for the prisoner re-entry, there’s not a lot of funding for our target needs. Not many sponsors understand why we would help ex-criminals.”

And there are larger, looming issues with targeting that vulnerable population: Zavala says he’s also seen a change in the community that attends after President Trump took office in January.

“Our adult education program hasn’t been attending regularly since the election. Majority are undocumented. Some of them packed up and went back home.”

Still, 20 years later, DHDC is here for anyone for needs it. It has welcomed not only Detroit’s Hispanic community, but Southwest Detroit’s black residents and growing Middle Eastern population as well. 

“We pretty much take anyone and we don’t turn kids away,” Zavala says. “We are here to help the ones who need it the most. We’re a safety net for the ones falling. We are not just people who work in the community. We are the people we’re trying to help.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written by Sarah Rahal while a student at Wayne State University. Rahal, who graduated from WSU this spring, is now a breaking news reporter at The Detroit News.