Ann Arbor's Bryant Community Center looks to expand after two decades
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Editor's note: This story was edited at 11:30 a.m. to reflect the Bryant Community Center's funding sources do not include the Ann Arbor Housing Commission.
Three years ago, 48-year-old Sammy Willis of Ypsilanti went looking for help.
Living in Ann Arbor at the time, he found the Bryant Community Center at 3 W. Eden Court and its director, Derrick Miller.
“(Miller) has a big heart,” Willis said. “I was in a time of need and he was there for me.”
And so was the community center.
Willis, now back on his feet and a volunteer at the center, is among the thousands of under-resourced individuals from the neighborhood and Washtenaw County it helps each year.
Owned by the city of Ann Arbor, the community center has been operated by the Community Action Network for the past five years -- of which Miller has been the director for most of them. The center has been in operation for more than 20 years.
Use of the community center and its programs has increased dramatically in the past five years -- and the city of Ann Arbor is now looking to expand the center’s facilities.
Located in a small ranch-style house on the corner of West Eden Court and Champagne Drive, the center’s operations are spread throughout the bedrooms and a large multipurpose room that’s been tacked on to the back of the building.
One room houses an emergency food pantry stocked by Food Gatherers, which is opened for anyone who needs it every day. Washtenaw County residents can visit the pantry twice a month. Other rooms contain counseling spaces and computers the public can use as a resource.
Financial counseling programs, after-school programs for high school and elementary school students, women's groups and support groups operate weekly out of the center.
“No matter what’s going on outside, there’s respect in here,” Willis said of the center. “People come in and they know you by name, and if you have a problem they help you work it out.”
The building is constantly buzzing with activity during its business hours on weekdays. Three Thursdays a month when the community center hosts massive food distributions, there’s a line 60 to 70 people deep before the center even opens.
One of the food distributions each month is limited to residents of the immediate Bryant Park neighborhood.
“Serving just this neighborhood could consume the entire resources of the center,” Miller said, explaining that people from across the county travel to the center for help.
Miller said he sees a range of people -- and often language is a barrier in assisting clients that are looking for food or services at the center: Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Spanish and Somali are languages that Miller and other volunteers have encountered. Refugees from Iraq also have been helped at the center.
In total about 400 to 500 people are served in the food distributions that give away 15,000 pounds of food each month to those that need it.
In Bryant Community Center's 2012 fiscal year, 160,000 pounds of food were distributed valued at $285,556, according to Food Gatherers data.
“We’ve had an explosion in the amount of activity in terms of programs and activity that we have here,” Miller said.
Five years ago, about 10 to 15 children participated in the after-school program at the center.
Now, there are more 90 children -- and the center’s small, under-equipped kitchen feeds about 75 of them after school every day.
“Some of these kids -- that’s the only food they get all day, outside of the breakfast and lunch they get at school,” said Melva Pressly, a longtime volunteer.
Miller’s desk is in a closet in a bedroom that’s used for the administrative offices. The building is in need of more storage space, an expanded kitchen with a working oven and a better-designed pantry that would make it more accessible to people with limited capabilities.
“Currently, we’re absolutely too big for the space,” Miller said. “There’s just a high demand for the programs and services that we offer.”
The center's services are all free to its clients and so it does not bring in revenue. It's funded by a variety of sources collaborated by the Community Action Network.
In the center's July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012 fiscal year, about $196,900 was spent to run the Bryant Community Center.
Funding sources include grants and contributions from the Ann Arbor Department of Parks and Recreation, Washtenaw County, the United Way of Washtenaw County, the James A. and Faith Knight Foundation and Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.
The city of Ann Arbor has purchased a ranch-style house at 5 W. Eden Court next door to the Bryant Community Center and has re-zoned the property from residential to public for the center’s operations.
The house next door is being used for tutoring sessions -- but the city wants to connect it to the Bryant Community Center permanently.
“The community center has been short of space for a very long time. That house has always been way too small,” said park planner Amy Kuras of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. After a series of public meetings in the past year, an architect contracted by the city has developed several draft plans that will be presented to the community Thursday night.
The meeting is 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the center. Contact Kuras with questions at (734) 794-6230, ext. 42590 or email@example.com.
If there’s a consensus of public support for one of the designs, Miller said it will be recommended to the City’s Parks and Recreation Department to pursue final approval and funding. The design would be an update to the department’s master plan for the center.
There is no cost estimate yet for the project.
“The bottom line goal is to connect these two buildings and renovate them,” Kuras said.
New construction at the center would be funded by the parks and recreation millage, and renovations to the existing buildings would likely be funded by the city of Arbor, Kuras said.
“We’re hoping (the city) will still have money left over for renovations,” Kuras said.
Wednesday morning at the Bryant Community Center, volunteers stocked the emergency food pantry with canned goods from Food Gatherers.
There have been fewer donations of canned goods this year than normal, Pressly said, and so the community center had received less in its pantry each week until this spring.
The center is constantly in a state of turnover from one program to the next - and space is tight in the winter when people are trying to stay warm.
Though he declined to give his last name or age, client Dan of Ann Arbor said he found the organization six months ago when he was looking for food assistance.
“(The center) has made a big difference in my life,” Dan said, noting that he never imagined that he would need the help of the center. “The people were friendly they know you by your first name.”
He visits Bryant two to three times a month to use the computers and get financial help, Dan said.
Many of the clients at the center Wednesday selecting items from the emergency food pantry weren’t just searching for themselves - they were bringing home food for their families.
Such was the case for Perihen Raouf, 62, of Ann Arbor. After moving from her home country of Egypt to the U.S. three years ago, Raouf said she had difficulties finding a job as an art teacher and interior decorator because of health issues.
Raouf said she can’t afford the grocery store and has family at home to take care of.
“I would not be here if it didn’t make a difference in people’s lives,” Miller said. “I absolutely see a tremendous impact on the families that we work with.”