Amidst the boarded-up buildings and blighted street corners that are all too familiar in Detroit is a place where learning, inspiration and hope still thrives. Located virtually at the center of the Osborn Neighborhood just south of Detroit’s infamous 8 Mile Road, the Osborn High School campus serves more than 1,200 students in three separate learning academies operated by the Detroit Public Schools.

Just five years ago, Osborn was closed for financial considerations that overshadowed poor academic performance and safety concerns. It reopened within a year but remained known as a drop-out factory, sporting a graduation rate among the lowest in the country. But now, despite Detroit’s historic bankruptcy and the school district’s own emerging debt and fiscal crisis, nearly 80 percent of all students earn a diploma. And it’s among the noteworthy positives people talk about when they evaluate ‘new’ Detroit.

“Not long ago, this zip code was home to the most violent zip codes in the entire country, and the residents in this community said they were going to change that,” said Chris Lambert, a pastor who recently moved to Detroit from its sprawling suburbs. “This has been a huge turnaround.”

Osborn Reborn

Lambert and others he’s mobilized hope to continue the momentum and be part of Detroit’s rebirth. Life Remodeled, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2011, has been turning the physical challenges presented by Detroit’s older neighborhoods into positives.

Life Remodeled focuses on blight removal, neighborhood beautification and community networking with the idea that improving community anchors, like schools, increases the likelihood of making sustainable changes.

Each year, Lambert and his team propose one large-scale improvement project and focused their attention this summer on the 4.5 mile square miles that comprise the Osborn Neighborhood, with the high school and Pulaski Elementary at the center.

“When we invest in a neighborhood, we look for two things: significant need and radical hope,” Lambert explained. “If you drive around this neighborhood, you will see it’s the most blighted in Detroit. That can change; that will change this summer.”

Thousands of volunteers 14 and older will converge on the community in August and work alongside residents on a host of rehabilitation projects. Lambert’s goals are to mobilize 12,000 volunteers; board up 500 vacant houses; clean-up and beautify more than 300 blocks surrounding the schools; and remodel 21 family homes of current and future high-school students.

In all, the project encompasses an estimated $6 million in donated materials, equipment and in-kind labor.

The goals are lofty, but Lambert and his group of coordinators and community supporters are confident it can get done. They pulled it off last year at Cody High School, Osborn’s sister school, where Life Remodeled coordinated 10,000 volunteers to rehabilitate 100 city blocks and refurbish three schools, including Cody’s roof and $1.2 million football field outfitted with synthetic turf.

Top Priority

Unlike the Cody project, most of the attention this year is focused on Osborn’s roof, which hast multiple leaks, rippling underlayment and water pooling throughout six different elevations. In its current decaying state, the roof would cost the cash-strapped school district roughly $2.4 million to replace. However, through Life Remodeled’s partnerships, Lambert reduced the cost to $900,000. Officials said more than $100,000 was raised by June so work on the gym and library roofs began.

“There’s no project more important than the very roof you’re standing on right now,” Lambert told a group of media, supporters and community activists during a rooftop press conference announcing the project on June 12. “I you look around this roof, you can tell it needs some help. This roof should’ve been changed 25 years ago. When it rains, students are literally dodging rain drops.”

Three metro-Detroit roofing contractors — Lutz Roofing, A&Z Roofing and Schena Roofing — donated labor and tools to cover the 156,000-square-foot roof with a polymer-based wind-vented system. It carries a 20-year warranty.

“Giving back is a big part of who we are as a company, and we’re very excited to be part of this effort,” said Tony Schena, president of Schena Roofing in Chesterfield, Mich. “Our job now is to do it and make sure it’s done right, the correct way so it will perform the way the district needs it to.”

Materials were donated by Allied Building Products, and the Skillman Foundation provided significant funding grants for the entire construction project. Other business partners include General Motors and Quicken Loans, which will offer volunteers and supplies for the neighborhood clean-up in August. If successful in raising the remaining funds, officials with Life Remodeled said the roof could be completed when classes resume in the fall. 

Life Remodeled Vice President Dom Morelli, a Detroit-area roofing specialist with more than 30 years of experience, said the urgency to complete the roof can’t be understated.

“Roofing is important not because of the materials, but it’s the value of what’s underneath the roof,” said Morelli, who’s consulting on the project. “No student should go to a school and have to dodge raindrops. They should have a safe environment and be focused on what school is all about: education, learning and a commitment to working together as one.”

Still Seeking Help

Darnell Earley, the emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools, said that for every Lambert he finds that is committed to making a difference in Detroit, he needs a dozen more. The need is great, and so is the opportunity with the right mindset. If the experience in the Cody neighborhood is any indication, Earley said he’s optimistic about the good Live Remodeled will now bring to the city’s east side both within and outside the school walls.

“We know that having a safe pathway to school is often the most important factor in parents selecting where they’re going to live,” he said. “By aggressively attacking blight so that we can transform those dark pathways to brighter and enlightening experiences through education, we’re going to make a difference.”

But they can’t do it alone. In addition to the financial donations, Life Remodeled officials emphasized that they believe everyone has a skill, and that they can help uplift an entire community — and maybe even a city — by pooling those skills together to help.

“I’m a roofer, but my life is changing as I’ve watched others grow and change just through their involvement with this organization,” Morelli said. “No one should be out there saying, ‘I can’t do anything.’ Everyone can do something, whether it’s with tools, computers, recruiting…we can all do something to create a proud, good, positive environment for kids to learn in.”

School officials said it’s the prime example of public, private and community interests teaming together to improve the quality of life for Detroit’s most important residents.

“Too often the dialogue focuses on other things than what is going to benefit the student, and this is one of those things, an excellent example of that shift.”

 Life Remodeled is still seeking donations and volunteer registration at its website or by phone at 313-744-3052. All contributions are tax deductible.