Ferndale Celebrates Good Neighbors
(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 20, 2016)
Ferndale, MI – When Alyssa Atkinson was presented with her Good Neighbor = Strong Community Award, the presented talked about one Atkinson’s strongest traits, her vulnerability.
“Being a volunteer means two things, one is showing up, showing up and putting yourself out there,” said Councilperson Dan Martin. “Another is giving of herself.” Atkinson has raised over $7,000 for Ferndale Pride and is active with Ferndale Youth Assistance and Michigan AIDS Coalition, often helping with fundraising events.
In the interest of vulnerability, she shared that she had suffered from anxiety and depression, but that “volunteering is the best thing I ever did.”
Atkinson was one of several community members honored Tuesday evening at the awards event, which is presented approximately once a year by Citizens for a Fair Ferndale.
For Tracy Roberts, vulnerability came at a time she was least expecting it. She was 20 weeks pregnant with twins in 2008 when she learned that neither of them had a heartbeat. Labor was induced and Tristan and Theodore came into the world without ever taking a breath. Roberts and her family grieved. They also got support from a group at Beaumont Hospital for families coping with natal loss. “While the group could never erase the pain, it was comforting to find women who had gone through this,” Roberts told her award presenter Gigi VanderWeele.
When the sunlight began to show through the clouds, Roberts realized what a help the support group had been. To give this opportunity to other families, she formed a nonprofit fundraising group called Angel Kisses, which has raised over $100,000 to help organizations that support families dealing with the loss of an expected child. Among the projects funded are a special waiting room for mothers going through loss, so they are not in the same room with the happy expectant parents, and a tribute to babies at Roseland Park Cemetery in Berkley. They also fund support programs, and teach people to “not be afraid to say you care.”
Also supporting those in loss, and celebrating those who are fighting and surviving, is Michelle Sibula of Oak Park who organizes the Ferndale Relay for Life each year. Relay for Life is part of an international movement to raise money for the American Cancer Society. In Ferndale the walk is a grand event, with music, speeches, candlelight tributes, and a 24 hour walk a thon with fun themes and massive community participation. Ferndale is in its 9th year of participation and has raised over $400,000. “When we walk together we are in solidarity with over $4 million people around the world who walk,” said presenter Bridget Deegan-Krause. “The best things for her are the connections that are formed, and realizing that we are not alone. We are connected in big and small ways.”
Vulnerable populations also had a presence at the Good Neighbor Awards, fittingly so since Citizens for Fair Ferndale’s roots come from the fight for equality in the community. GINA – Gender Identity Network Alliance was among those receiving an award. Presenter Angela Lippard explained “Over ten years ago Michelle Fox Phillips founded transgender Detroit, and in 2012 it became GINA to be inclusive of all gender identities and expressions,” she said. The group hosts Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor the hundreds of transgender individuals who are murdered around the world each year. They also do voice training for people in transition, provide a support network, and have a pharmacist on the board who teaches people about the transitioning process. They also make sure that on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas the community room at Affirmations is full of people who are welcomed together as a big family. “It’s revolutionary for any transgender person to be seen and visible in a world that tells them they should not exist,” Lippard quoted Laverne Cox.
When Phillips accepted the award, she thanked the City of Ferndale for being ready to pass a ban against travel to North Carolina, and she thanked the Ferndale School Board for adopting inclusive safe schools guidelines to protect LGBTQ kids.
Also vulnerable to discrimination are people of the Jewish community. But in Ferndale people of all faiths are welcomed, and Rabbi Herschel Finman was honored with a Good Neighbor Award for his efforts to share Jewish culture and traditions with his neighbors. Finman is the founder of Jewish Ferndale and is in the process of creating a Jewish Community Center in the city. He also was “the man who brought the Menorah to the Kuclick Center,” said presenter Councilperson Dan Martin, who lauded the fact that events like the Menorah lighting and educational events at the Library are not just celebrations of faith, but invitations for people of different faiths to be part of the experience. “I am very impressed with the community. Ferndale has reached out to us and made us feel welcome,” the Rabbi said.
The Ferndale Housing Commission was given a Good Neighbors Award because of their work in stepping up to protect the vulnerable senior, disabled and low income residents who are part of the public housing program. Current FHC volunteers stepped in to a situation of callous mismanagement after the former housing director was convicted of breaking into residents’ homes and swapping their prescription painkillers for over the counter pills. A mountain of problems were revealed in a HUD investigation, and the members of the board went in to fix them. “Nobody wants to dig though a 280 page audit. This is not Saturday afternoon fun stuff,” said Martin, who presented the award and also played a role in the FHC’s recovery. “They are my heroes for the last year.”
Ann Heler, chair of the FHC, accepted the award, stating that the group is on track to making all the homes feel like homes, and they hope to make the FHC a program that other HUD organizations can look at as a model for how to do things right.
Another way Ferndalians express the vulnerability of community love is by opening their hearts and homes. The Traines Family is one example of this. Jon, Mary Beth, Jacob and David Traines were honored for the way their family supports so many others, particularly through music. Gigi VanderWeele listed the many ways they volunteer, including though Orch Support and Band Aid, helping with instrument rentals, camps, workshops, chaperoning and running the sound systems. “They stand by all their students. They just have an energy with these kids. Their home is more of a youth center, a home that is safe and nurturing where kids can talk about school and music,” VanderWeele said. “I honestly feel blessed that my children are growing up in the shadow of the Traines.”
Kym and Shawn Stewart have also opened up their hearts and their homes to neighborhood children. The sister and brother live in Royal Oak Township where they started a group called You Lead by Example to help give kids good role models and learning opportunities. Kym, who is a mother of five and grandmother of six, is a parapro at Roosevelt School and serves on the Royal Oak Township Library Board. Among the activities the Stewarts share with the children are poetry at the park, trips to museums and events and a Christmas party. Her philosophy has been that “kids need to know the streets are watching,” and “kids need to know they have responsibilities.” Ironically the first philosophy ended up being true for her. “I didn’t know anything about CFF before this. But the streets are watching. When CFF contacted me, I was like ‘wait, somebody was watching.’ So thank you very much,” Kym said.
That spirit of opening up and looking out for children in the neighborhood is also very much ingrained in Good Neighbor John Olson. Olson has been a coach of the Ferndale Eagles Wrestling Club for over 20 years. Prior to that he coached wrestling for the Hazel Park Wolves for 21 years. The love of the sport came when he was in his early 20s. His parents had passed away and he was the oldest of 11 kids. When his brother wanted to wrestle, he volunteered to help coach. And he’s been doing it ever since. Mary Schusterbauer presented the award to Olson, saying that his volunteerism could not be measured just in years, but in “teamwork, tenacity and pride.” She also was proud that in Olson’s club the fee to join is only $10, compared to other clubs that charge about $250. “He doesn’t want any kid to be denied access because of cost,” Schusterbauer said. Olson and fellow Eagles Coach Timothy Collins do the extra work of hosting a tournament at the school to help underwrite the cost, along with other fundraising.
The Awards are one of many ways that Citizens for Fair Ferndale helps build acceptance and community spirit. They also host impartial candidate forums, collect civility pledges, and collaborate around issues of access to healthcare and racial equity. They began as a group of residents supporting a proposed human rights ordinance. Learn more at www.fairferndale.org.
Ferndale Celebrates Good Neighbors