Profile: Southwest Solutions Executive Director John Van Camp recalls agency’s start September 1, 2015

During 30-plus years as president and CEO of Southwest Solutionsin Detroit, John Van Camp has seen his organization grow again and again. He joined the agency as a college student in the 1970s.

How did you become involved with Southwest Solutions?
After living overseas for 7 ½ years — including participating in the Peace Corps in India, working as a civilian during the Vietnam War, and traveling around Europe — I came back to my hometown of Detroit and attended graduate school at Wayne State University. In 1973, through the school, I was placed with Pastor Bill Moldwin, whose church was in an abandoned HUD home in southwest Detroit.

It was great for me because Bill was building not only a ministry but a real community. Bill also was board chairman at Southwest Solutions, which had started one year earlier. On the same day in 1974 that he went from chairman to executive director, Bill hired me as his administrative assistant. And, in 1981, I became executive director of the organization. When I started there as a student, we had a staff of 10 and a budget of $200,000. Now we have a staff of 480 and annual revenues of $43 million.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?
Our work is based on the premise that there is an integral relationship between wellness of people and wellness of place. Southwest Solutions started as part of a national network of community mental health agencies. After creating a viable system for adults with mental illness, we used the same principles for homeless people. Then we helped kids in the juvenile system and especially focused on bringing them back to the community. Seeing a system of care we’ve created for one vulnerable population applied to other vulnerable populations and to neighborhoods is one of our foremost accomplishments.

Partnering with other groups is another major accomplishment. The power of convening means bringing together businesses, the government, agencies, and residents, with a common agenda that’s not about any one organization’s growth and development but the overall goal of the group.

How have Southwest Solutions and IFF worked together?
We’ve partnered with IFF on a number of different initiatives in Detroit, including offering homebuyer counseling to increasing the number of childcare facilities (IFF is big in the child care space). But one of the most exciting ventures is an ambitious, resident-driven economic development project called the Vista Partnership. Through seed money from Skillman Foundation, we surveyed 1,800 households about what they would like to see in a 20-block area. To improve that neighborhood, we’re gaining ownership of vacant land and buildings for future redevelopment, and IFF gave us a $1 million loan to secure some of that property. The Vista Partnership has the potential to be a truly transformative community development initiative.

What other hobbies and interests do you have?
I love adventure travel. A year ago, my wife and I went on an African observation safari for 3 ½ weeks. One-third of our vacation was spent in a Range Rover, another third was spent following wild dog or elephant tracks — we had a phenomenal guide who found them — and the other third was spent canoeing down the Zambezi River dodging hippos and crocodiles. I also like to ski, play tennis, and cook with small plates paired with wine. I love good conversations, but most of all, I love my grandkids.

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