Just Getting Warmed Up

Alumni story
Ray Wright 1990 1993 Detroit
Photo of Ray Wright (left)
Ray Wright, left

Through the AmeriCorps VISTA program, I experienced life-changing events. For that I am grateful. In fact, I believe I’m living testimony to AmeriCorps VISTA’s national importance and continued necessity.

By teaching technical, communications and networking skills to those who would never get a chance to rebuild their self-confidence and community infrastructures, AmeriCorps VISTA serves as a “mender” of the breach in our nation's safety net. I congratulate AmeriCorps VISTA on 40 years of excellence in mentoring and cultivating the dormant energies and aspirations inside America's grass-root organizations.

I am the eldest of eight children, and as a child I excelled in school and athletics. But because of family structural breakdowns, parental alcoholism, molestation, and physical abuse, I lost my edge, dropped out of high school, and joined the U.S. Army in 1970 at age 17.

By 1974, I was a 21-year-old African American male, with a family of four, no education, and no clear career path. What was I going to do? How could I take care of my family? I eventually had to get on welfare with my family, but I was trying to find a way to get ahead. This time in my life was the beginning of more than 15 years of crisscrossing the country in search of better work, education, and career opportunities to help me take care of my family.

In 1990, I ended up back in Detroit as a community outreach coordinator at Operation Get Down, a grass-roots Pan-African social service agency, where I had earned a GED (general equivalency diploma) in 1975. In addition to GED assistance, Operation Get Down identifies self-help solutions in the Detroit community, offers shelter and support to the homeless, designs youth development programs and coordinates family emergency services. After a year at Operation Get Down, I became a VISTA member at the organization’s Warming Center, where homeless clients were served a hot meal and given sleeping accommodations for the night.

Between 1990 and 1993, at least 75,000 people had been cut from the welfare roles, and another 50,000 had been released from mental hospitals throughout Michigan. These two acts alone swelled the population of homeless residents in Detroit to an estimated 10,000. One of my VISTA duties was to drive a van around town to pick up homeless adults and children off the streets and transport them to our warming facility when freezing wintertime temperatures hit the area. By the second year of Operation Get Down's expanded city-wide Warming Center program, metro Detroit residents were calling us “The Brothers in the Vans.”

Richard Trice, Operation Get Down’s Deputy Director and my VISTA supervisor, had a vision to take helping the homeless to an unprecedented level. He wanted to create a place where homeless clients could receive comprehensive services 24 hours a day, rebuilding the community “one life at a time.” Thus, Nia House was established, and I was reassigned there through the VISTA program as a residential liaison and advocate for residents’ rights.

At Nia House (Nia means purpose in Swahili), the largest transitional housing unit in Michigan at that time, we helped rebuild lives from the ground up, but this was no free ride. Residents had to clean their rooms, bathe daily and perform duties around the house, such as painting, cutting grass, plastering, sweeping, mopping and helping prepare meals. The community gained a sense of pride and respect for the Nia House residents, who had found something worth living for—self-respect.

Counselors admitted residents into Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs, sent qualified residents to GED programs, helped them with medical problems and helped them find employment. Nia House fed 144 residents, both men and women, daily. Through my AmeriCorps*VISTA tenure, I witnessed Operation Get Down saving hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. We found people under bridges and in hallways; we picked up women and children freezing in dead of winter and men and women decimated by drug use. We saved victims of domestic violence by securing warm, safe surroundings, making sure they got help to realign their lives, and by giving them a hot meal.

Years later, it is a humbling to encounter former residents of Nia House walking downtown, or at the bus stop, or in a Westside market, and hear them say, “Thank you, Brother Wright. The Nia House experience helped save my life.”

The Nia House helped change the way many politicians viewed the homeless problem in Michigan and revitalized efforts against homelessness. Twelve years later, it has helped reduce the number of Detroit's homeless by half.

Although I left Nia House and VISTA in 1993, I am still actively involved in grass-roots community development and urban design activities. Following the death of my 22-year-old daughter in 1998, I wanted to create a program to help children combat drug abuse and child molestation. So I engaged the same networking and communications skills that I used as an AmeriCorps VISTA member to start the Just Aim Motivate and Move (JAMM) Project, which features an after-school and summer program where inner-city youth learn computer technology and engage in physical activity, cultural enrichment, and economic enrichment education.

The AmeriCorps program at Oakland University in Pontiac, Michigan, has been a strong partner of the JAMM mission and its projects. During the past seven years, the AmeriCorps Oakland has helped recruit hundreds of manpower hours for our JAMM Session, an annual fundraiser that involves having fun through games and lots of showmanship on the basketball court.

This past December, the JAMM Project was honored at the 10-year celebration of AmeriCorps Oakland. Through the JAMM Project, AmeriCorps Oakland has served thousands of youth and their parents across the Pontiac and metro Detroit area.

All of these can be traced back to 1991 when VISTA helped train me and set the path for me to acquire cross networking experiences over the years.

Thank you, AmeriCorps VISTA. I hope there will be many more decades of unmatched service to this great nation.

Decade: 1990s