Pontiac’s Ascend Foundation Continues Changing Lives, Founder Shares Story
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Jan. 27, 2022)
Pontiac, MI – When Kaino Phillips was a kid, growing up on the North and East Sides of Pontiac, he didn’t face the same challenges that were rampant in the city which had been left economically devastated by closing of automobile plants and supplier factories, the influx of narcotics, and the emptying of state mental hospitals leading to more homelessness. Though his family struggled economically, they knew others who had it worse. Phillips had parents who were both teachers. They gave him love, encouragement, and discipline. Yet even with a stable start, he still he succumbed to the pressure of his peers. He found himself in trouble, narrowly escaping incarceration only because of a moment so horrifying that nothing can deter him from his life now – of helping kids stay on healthier paths.
He started the Clarence E. Phillips Ascend Foundation, a nonprofit that “is committed to expanding opportunities for economic growth and educational training within minority-based communities. It also sponsors programs which improve race relations and foster support and values for minority children and socio-economically challenged families” according to their mission statement. Phillips had been doing community organizing, volunteering, and mentoring with numerous volunteers since the 90s, but formalized efforts about a decade ago, naming the foundation after him following his death. Not only had the elder Phillips been a devoted father, he’d also been State Representative and Mayor of Pontiac.
The Ascend Foundation has done youth programs with mentorship and career readiness – educating kids about college as well as vocational programs that can lead to lucrative jobs in the skilled trades. They’ve brought speakers into the schools to share their stories, and they’ve helped kids showcase their talents with award programs that not only honor kids’ success, but feature their performances as well.
“This year had a lot of complexities due to COVID,” Phillips said. “Because of this it has forced us to have to go heavily into a virtual format. We took a lot of events that would have been geared to be celebrated in person and put them on everyone’s computer screen.
“We did this by doing community celebrations of excellence events. This year after a year hiatus, we were able to do our: Pontiac Honors Community Service Awards Event in which we had a few thousand people visiting to celebrate some of the greatest assets in service. For this event, we had 467 nominations. Between Youtube and Facebook we had over 2,500 watching the event!”
Over 3,000 people watched the Black History Month Legends and Trailblazer Awards, where they partnered with State Representative Brenda Carter to acknowledge our living legends who have given us over 35 years of impact to the Pontiac community. All of the awards were named after legends that have passed away from Pontiac. For example, Dorothy King and Lorene Phillips were awarded the Jo Ann Battle and Eloise Williams Educational Trailblazer Awards, and Clifford Sykes and Quincy Stewart were presented with the Hank and Thaddeus Jones Musician Trailblazer Awards.
Kids Night of the Stars is a longstanding tradition that awards scholarships and features student performances. In 2020 event was cancelled, but for 2021 volunteers brought it back with an online program that featured Detroit Youth Choir, hip hop by Quest Athletics, and a mix of jazz, tap, and modern moves by My Dance Studio.
“We streamed them all virtually and it was sensational,” Phillips said. With this event, this year we were able to give out: $760,000 in scholarships to children and young adults. We really thank Oakland University for their participation in this to help us reach this lofty goal. It wouldn’t have happened to this extent without them.”
Scholarships went out to 56 students, and over 3,000 people watched the event online. It was here that Ascend made another grand announcement – They’re helping start the Pontiac Chapter of The Detroit Youth Choir! The Pontiac Youth Choir and Performing Arts Company will launch this year, growing off the success of the group made famous by their appearance on the show America’s Got Talent. “This is huge for Pontiac,” Phillips said.
Other events included online programming, such as a livestream encouraging men to become more active in the lives of children – either their own or by mentoring, and programs created by the Youth Coalition on COVID-19 and mental health.
“All of these virtual events were pioneered by us at Ascend and Effigy Media Arts. We were the two entities that came together and funded by Oakland County to pioneer the first virtual concert and event format back in 2020 during the pandemic as we did the Pontiac Census Virtual Concert to help push up our numbers,” Phillips said. We had over 7,000 people watching the event at the time of the concert and it made our census numbers jump up 1% which is huge in the means of money coming to this city. We used the very best professional Pontiac talent acts that the city has to offer to make it happen, and it was amazing. It was the first of its kind and everyone started contacting us and Effigy to recreate the magic. It has truly been great to see.”
A’SANTE LUCAS AND EFFIGY MEDIA
A’Sante Lucas owns Effigy Media Arts Co, and is responsible for a lot of the production aspects of Ascend’s events, especially the online programs.
“The Ascend Foundation has changed my life,” he told Oakland County Times. “ I have gained brothers, sisters, nieces & nephews. I have gained a family, with bonds stronger than iron and steel mixed. The foundation promotes excellence, a strong united front to battle against substance abuse, hunger, and overall fundamental needs of the people of Pontiac. We’re not looking for anything in return, besides to change bad situations to good ones.
The way that the Ascend foundation holds fast to personal accountability by its board, staff, contractors. Guarantees the service provided to the people is nothing less than stellar. I personally love The Clarence E. Phillips Foundation. And will continue to stand, and fight the good fight!”
Lucas added that he’s learned a lot professionally from his experiences.
“Kaino Phillips is a dynamic cinematic director. He directs each shoot. The conceptual look, set design, even scripting. His educational background from Grambling State University has helped me grow as a professional, to the point where I have had opportunities with Oakland County Government, Genesee County Government, Ebony Magazine and surrounding cities such as Southfield, Novi, Detroit, and Flint using experience and knowledge I gained from him. The list would be too long for me to write actually, the opportunities that I have faced. And in a nutshell, that’s what the Ascend Foundation provides to everyone it touches. An opportunity to be better than how you came in.”
“The 2021 Ascend Foundation Pontiac Honors Community Service Awards was truly a spectacular labor of love. Honoring those that have made tremendous contributions in our community and letting each honoree know how much they mean to us.
“Each step they took for the betterment of our community, was a leap for a person like me. I have personally benefited from the hard work that these honorees commit to. Being involved in this honors event, as a videographer allowed me to show my gratitude, by making them look spectacular on screen. And we did!! We wanted the honorees to feel exactly what they are to us – giants!”
Another initiative has been a new partnership between us at Ascend and CNS Healthcare to increase the efforts of our Ascend Foundation TRUTH Youth Coalition fight against substance abuse in the schools, neighborhoods and homes of Pontiac. “Through this partnership we were able to increase our grasp on resources to help children and parents find the mental health services needed to give children everything they need to get healthier in their day to day lives. This partnership with CNS is priceless,” Phillips said.
The year ended with holiday celebrations and helping others, with $98,760 to help with the paying it forward initiative that included feeding the homeless and providing gifts for families in need.
Another volunteer that helps with Ascend’s mission is Samino Scott.
Scott is the Executive Director of the Pontiac Collective Impact Partnership, who teamed up with Ascend Foundation to work on a project for Truth Youth Coalition.
“A member from the organization sat down with me to record a millennial’s perspective on the impact of gun violence on the lives of school-aged children,” he said. “It was a brief, heartfelt conversation that played before a panel discussion involving the Chief of Security for the school district, Chief Judge Cynthia Walker, Deputy Gill Garrett, and a local nonprofit leader.”
He’s been volunteering in the community over 20 years and has worked with Ascend in several capacities over the last seven or eight. “I volunteer because I enjoy helping people improve their place in life by providing needed resources or educational assistance to become more self-sufficient,” Scott said. “I know that volunteering makes a difference because I have volunteered in various capacities for over 20 years, which is long enough to observe how mentoring or working consistently with people can positively impact their life trajectory. Over time you begin to see the patterns in the outcomes in schools and the community overall, where people actively give of their time to pay it forward.”
Gun violence is part of the reason Phillips and his network of volunteers fights so hard to give young people in the community role models.
“I personally do this because I owe this community,” Phillips said.
“When I was young, I found myself in some real bad situations. Those situations found me getting a juvenile record at the age of 13.
“Later while still on probation, I ended up doing something that had me in court at the 1200 complex with a jail sentence surely waiting for me. I was only 17 years of age and 145 pounds of scared to death!”
While waiting for the inevitable court date, something happened that put him in a position to get a second chance, but not without an incredible weight on his soul.
“Someone looking to bring bodily harm to me decided to inflict it one night,” Phillips said. “As they were waiting for me, the gun went off and the man lost the usage of his legs from it.
“Because of this, all charges on me were dropped. It was at that time that I knew what I had to do – get better. I had to get better. That has been my motivation since. I was spared.”
With each passing year, Ascend continues to grow their capacity for goodness, with a board and leadership staff that Phillips says are “huge and instrumental in the organization being what we are today. We don’t achieve this success without them. This year, we will finish with providing close to 1.7 Million Dollars in service and giving.”
Learn more about the Clareance A. Phillips Ascend Foundation at their website www.theascendfoundation.org.