Advancement Corporation Community Center takes over Otto Middle School

LANSING — How do you respond to the needs of people when their situation falls outside the framework of existing social programs?

A new full-service community center — located in the new Otto High School in Lansing — aims to provide the answer to that question through collective action.

Community members face a number of challenges that current programs don’t address, said Derrick “DJ” Knox, Jr., president of the Michigan Poor Campaign (MPPC). He pointed, for example, to the problems faced by young people who turn 18 and come out of Michigan’s foster care system with no support structure to fall back on.

“There are all these things that happen, but if we don’t have an environment like this – it not only embraces people’s differences in the categories they’ve been placed in, but also challenges them to grow … and gives them the resources and tools to grow — so we’re in a steady, repeating cycle of doing the same,” Knox said.

The Advancement Corporation Community Center, or “A3”, which will be open to the public in phases, seeks to identify the various areas in which the needs of community members are not being adequately met and to fill those gaps. Over time, its efforts will include such things as vocational and technical training, recreational activities, medical care, mental health treatment and food distribution.

How the project was born

The project has been in the works for about two years. Knox said it all started when he was planning a mentorship program.

As he began to think about how best to help those he mentored, he considered the various pillars of their well-being – including housing, food security, healthcare, social engagement and more.

“In any area of ​​each of those things… if you don’t have one of the other things, it will make you deficient in more than one area,” Knox said. “There had to be something in place that said, ‘We have to meet the needs of the whole person.'”

Organizers from Advancement Corporation, the nonprofit wing of the Metro Lansing Poor People’s Campaign, identified the former college early as a potential hotbed. Knox said the 220,000 square foot structure, which has been vacant for about 10 years, provides a central location capable of housing all resources.

The Lansing School District handed over the building in October 2021, with Superintendent Benjamin Shuldiner sign the agreement. The renovations have so far cost more than $250,000, Knox said.

The sheer size of the community center allows organizers to house many different organizations, which Knox hopes will instill a sense of collaboration.

“It forces the coalition,” Knox said. “When you have a lot of money and you just say to a bunch (of organizations): ‘Just come and offer us,’ what is the big picture? There has to be a big picture of all that money, in that we’re not just throwing away money that goes away after a few years.

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The layout of the building

The first floor of the community center will consist of five different wings, each dedicated to a different support service.

In the former Otto Community Health Center, located near the south entrance of the building, a clinic will provide residents with general medical, dental and vision care.

Knox said clinics would structure their models of compassionate care after nonprofit health care organizations, such as Medical care without care in Lansing, relying on government programs and volunteer medical providers, to provide free services.

Down the hall, in several renovated classrooms, will be a mental health clinic. Advancement Corporation will partner with Community mental healthamong other organizations, to provide therapy and prescription drug evaluations.

“There needs to be greater availability of programs like (community mental health), but also a sharper focus when it comes to underserved, marginalized, and disenfranchised demographics,” Knox said.

At the north end of the building, the old school’s gymnasium and auditorium are being renovated to accommodate recreational activities for people of all ages. Knox said the gym will offer basketball, volleyball and pickleball. The auditorium – which seats about 1,400 people – will feature music, theater and guest speakers.

At the other end of the building, several computer labs are planned where people can hone their computer skills, Knox said. More computers will be scattered around the building to provide internet access.

Knox said he thinks the technology will be especially helpful for young people and job seekers.

“For computer enthusiasts, (these are) basic things,” Knox said. “But things that if you learn at a young age you can really develop.”

Finally, a trades wing will offer training programs for several different professions, which Knox said Advancement Corporation identified by surveying community members to see which ideas garnered the most interest.

Among the first planned training programs are construction, chiropractic care and masseuse training.

“When we look at what’s going on right now with our youth and everything, one of the main passions of this building was to provide services to young people, not to keep them busy, but to keep them productive,” Knox said. . .

The construction class will be the first to start at A3, Knox said. Starting April 11, it will introduce students to the trade and prepare them to work on a construction site.

Course registration is now open at oppknox.org.

“An iron sharpens an iron”

Knox said there were needs that the community center would not immediately meet on site, but organizers are working to develop solutions.

For example, the community center will not provide on-site housing. But Advancement Corporation, in partnership with MI Just Causeanother local nonprofit, also secured the former Teen Challenge building at 510 W. Willow St. in Lansing.

Knox said the former faith-based addiction recovery center, which has been closed since 2017, is being renovated into 58 temporary supportive housing units for young men who have recently left foster care.

“There needs to be an atmosphere where people can mature at a realistic pace. And that maturity doesn’t just happen because you reach a certain age,” Knox said. “So making sure that we have housing available, but also programs available, which is why acquiring this property was perfect with us (Otto).”

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The first phase of the community center is almost ready. Workers are bringing the old school back up to building code by repairing the HVAC and plumbing and performing electrical tests.

There’s still work to be done, so Knox said the closeness of the opener hasn’t quite hit him yet.

As the project kicks off, he said he hopes to maintain the collective effort that got him to this point.

When presenting the community center to the school district, Knox said, Advancement Corporation had the support of more than 40 organizations — committing resources, signing letters and pushing for the deal to happen. He does not believe that the agreement would have been sealed without such collaboration.

Ultimately, it is this selflessness and cooperation that he hopes to see organically sprout as the new community center begins to welcome people.

Currently, Knox said, community organizations in Lansing compete for relatively small amounts of money.

“An iron sharpens an iron. There will come a day when we need each other,” Knox said. “What it looks like is instead of us overlapping and arguing about things, so that we can at least work together and support each other as they work their way through.”

Contact journalist Jared Weber at 517-582-3937 or [email protected]

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