Mental well-being


Neighborhoods and returning vets create ‘Neighborhood University’

By Hon. Fred M. Mester
Retired Circuit Court Judge, Oakland County 6th Circuit

Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel earlier this year said that there will be a reduction of forces in our military not seen since the end of World War II inclusive of the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan by the end of this year.

There will be a staggering number of servicemen and women (50,000 expected in Southeast Michigan alone) expected to return to the tri-county area of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb.

A proactive approach with action plans should be developed to ensure the returning vets will be a positive ingredient to the economic and cultural fabric of Southeast Michigan.

Are innovative opportunities being developed for housing, education, legal assistance, and other services to assist these men and women as they transition from military to civilian life?

This situation provides us with several unique opportunities:

(1)    Demonstrate our positive expression of appreciation for our service;

(2)    Create a home-buying program to bolster our neighborhoods;

(3)    Provide channels for the start of, or continuation of, education or technical training and job transition;

(4)    Address urban blight issues in inner cities by creating new inner city neighborhoods in four-block areas with returning vets and their intact families. The returning vets
can contribute so much to rebuilding these new neighborhoods by their internal compass of military training, discipline, and unity – they can foreseeably share the training and discipline strategies with others in their community.

The underlying premise is that by creating a welcoming, supportive, incentive-based and opportunity-laden environment for our vets to return to, we are in essence creating a renaissance of neighborhoods and ultimately of the city itself. This then can create a stabilizing effect and a true sense of community. Working with the community as partners, this concept brings together the resources from many nonprofit organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity to rebuild homes for our veterans in these areas. By leveraging such resources and working with various community partners, we can minimize costs while rebuilding our inner-city neighborhoods from within.

Within the four-block residential areas could be one house that would serve the residents in that community with a health center, law enforcement “mini station,” employment services such as a mini MichiganWorks!/UIA office, tutoring and educational support, and more. This house within this four-block region would be known as a “Neighborhood University.”

Graduate students of the colleges and universities, as well as participants in programs such as AmeriCorps, would be the tenants/instructors/deans of this Neighborhood University.

AmeriCorps volunteers have a two-year commitment, more than enough time to learn the neighborhood and become one with their neighbors in revitalizing the neighborhood.

The graduate students would have their educational efforts concentrated within that four-block area. The students would go through a short course covering the concept of the Neighborhood University. Their first responsibility would be to meet their neighbors and explain that they are there to provide a myriad of services. I offer the following as examples:

(1)    Identify truants and juvenile delinquents, and identify their principal adult to develop a plan to get the juveniles back in school.

(2)    Identify, in each household, the educational level of each adult and child.

(3)    Provide tutorial assistance for the youth as well as for the adults by providing a pathway for all adults within the four-block area to attain, at a minimum, a GED.
(4)    Provide an adjunct substation for the Detroit Library to provide books in each home.

(5)    Guide the neighborhood on taking care of itself. For example, provide clean-ups, neighborhood gardens, etc.

(6)    Provide an adjunct for the city and county health departments to ensure the most basic health information and services are provided to the residents of the neighborhood. For example, create means for everyone to have recommended shots and to identify prospective health problems.

(7)    Have each Neighborhood University serve as an informal police substation, which demonstrates to the residents that the police are there in partnership with them to ensure that they have a secure and safe environment.

(8)    Act as an employment agency by creating partnerships with existing employment agencies and with local businesses to advise of potential job opportunities, employment workshops, and to equip residents with job-seeking skills.

In summary, with the influx of returning veterans to Southeast Michigan, city and county leaders have a responsibility to our returning troops to assist them as they transition back into civilian life as responsible citizens.

By taking a proactive approach, the leadership of the tri-county area will be able to: transform the landscape of inner-city neighborhoods; strengthen communities; create opportunities that will benefit both the return veteran and residents; and bolter the citizenship and taxpayers in those cities.

A coalition of leaders from each county can serve as the driving force to bring together nonprofit organizations, human service agencies, police, and medical agencies to begin reclaiming our “lost” neighborhoods, helping recognize our veterans by creating opportunities for them to excel upon their return from service.