Creative match-making leads to new early childhood education center on Detroit’s East Side February 5, 2019

“When we got inside, it was very dark and very damp. There was a lot of debris on the floor. It was horrible. On that day, I didn’t know if it was going to happen – I knew it was possible, but maybe not probable. But today…today it’s absolutely beautiful.”

That’s how Roxanne Campbell describes the before-and-after of what’s now a new early childhood education center serving 56 children in Detroit’s Regent Park neighborhood. Campbell is the Executive Director of United Children and Family (UCF), a long-time Head Start and Early Head Start provider on Detroit’s East Side. She partnered with IFF and the nonprofit developer LifeBuilders to transform part of a former Detroit Public School building into the community’s first center serving children from birth to age 5.

“Many of our prospective and current families have two or more children. Having one facility that serves a broad age range provides a continuity of care and convenience that families need,” Campbell said.

In other words – parents don’t want to have to drop off their 6-month-old at one facility and then make a second stop to drop off their 3-year-old. The “birth-to-5” concept solves that challenge for parents, but it’s often tough for providers to find or build a facility capable of accommodating that many kids.

“Head Start/Early Head Start providers aren’t typically allowed to own their buildings – making it difficult to take out a loan against them in order to pay for needed improvements, and leaving them dependent on landlords to invest in their facilities,” explained Ja’Net DeFell, IFF’s lead developer in Michigan. “Part of the challenge in Detroit right now is connecting the dots on this to make sure providers have access to the capital they need to build the quality facilities families deserve.”

The total project cost of the new UCF center was $1.2 million. UCF maximized use of its Head Start funding to contribute close to $250,000 both to support construction and to purchase furniture and equipment. IFF helped cover the remaining costs by bundling multiple capital resources, including:

  • $500,000 grant to UCF from IFF’s Learning Spaces program, supported by The Kresge Foundation;
  • $478,000 loan to LifeBuilders from IFF;
  • Subsidized consulting services from IFF’s real estate team, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“We did a little creative match-making here,” DeFell said. “LifeBuilders became the kind of landlord that UCF had always needed – one willing to invest in a quality facility. And at the same time UCF helped bring some immediate life into the block that LifeBuilders wants to see developed even further.”

IFF had previously worked with both organizations – having provided financing to LifeBuilders on two other occasions, and having provided real estate services to UCF for its other child care centers after beginning work in the area through the Skillman Foundation’s “Good Neighborhoods” program.

According to Larry Johnson, Executive Director of LifeBuilders: “When we first moved into the neighborhood about 13 years ago, we noticed this building right away – a large abandoned school right in the very center of the community. At the time, it was an eyesore and a reminder of all the struggles the community had faced in recent years. We thought wow – if we could revitalize this at some point, so kids and families have some place to go and be together, it could be a real catalyst for future development.”

LifeBuilders’ original plan to build a community center is still in the works – and will have a natural partnership with the new early childhood education center next door.

“The new UCF center has been a real pillar in the community, with cars parked and lights on and kids coming and going,” Johnson said. “It’s a lighthouse of hope.”

The facility itself features three infant/toddler rooms, two pre-school rooms, a parent room, and a staff lounge. Best practice elements – such as “tiny toilets,” in-classroom sinks, and natural-wood furnishings – appear throughout the space.

Like Campbell, Johnson remembers the first time they looked at the space together.

“We started out meeting in a conference room, but then we ended up driving out to the facility and prying the boards off to take a peek. That’s the way Ja’Net operates – she’s a visionary who just dives in,” he said. “But what stood out to me most that day wasn’t the condition of the building, but the observation Roxanne made – that there is something really positive going on in the community. Restoration is underway, homes are under construction, people are walking by – there is life.”

Campbell concurred: “We couldn’t be more pleased. The parents love dropping off all their kids at one place. The kids love it. The staff and Board love it. Even the neighbors love it. Look back at those ‘before’ photos, and you’ll see how far we’ve come.”

The new UCF/LifeBuilders facility for early childhood education opened earlier in 2018.

Before and After Photos