Community force: How holistic program is changing Detroit one toddler at a time

Source: Michigan News


The toddlers arrive at the colorful stucco house with the bright orange door in the Martin Park neighborhood, take off their coats and seek out egg-shaped noise makers to shake.

Davon’te, 3, loves visiting the Brilliant Detroit hub for weekly toddler activities, his mother Camillia Martin said. And her two daughters ages 5 and 7 started attending in 2021.

“What keeps me coming back? The joy and happiness that my kids experience, they have tutoring and different activities,” Martin said. “He likes to have balloons, play with the kids, learn and read some of the words in the book.”

Karlita Johnson, the outreach manager, reads a book about llamas to the children while their parents keep watchful eyes on their little ones, saving them from tumbles as they bounce around to music.

Brilliant Detroit works in 18 neighborhoods in the community by transforming a house in need of repair into a hub. It partners with 160 organizations to deliver early childhood education, family support and food. More than 19,000 children have benefited from the programming.

Brilliant Detroit CEO Cindy Eggleton co-founded the organization in 2016 with University of Michigan alums Jim Bellinson and Carolyn Bellinson.

“We exist to create ‘kid success’ neighborhoods—neighborhoods where kids and families have everything they need from birth to 8 years old,” Eggleton said. 

Brandon Parker, left, and Selena Parker visit Brilliant Detroit with their son, Sirius, weekly to engage with other toddlers.
Photo by Jeremy Marble, Michigan News.

The offerings include one-on-one tutoring, GED preparation and testing, health and fitness classes, nutrition information, reading activities, and social-emotional and mental health services for children and their families. And there’s summer camp, too, making it a year-round presence for the neighborhood.

The results show that students have increased three instructional levels in reading along with significant improvement in education, health and family support, Eggleton said.

“The model works because it’s really with, for, and by. We get a house and repurpose it only after we’ve been invited into the neighborhood,” she said. “We align the programs and activities so kids and families can get what they need to measure their own success. And we form advisory groups in the neighborhood so there’s continuous input.”

Selena and Brandon Parker have brought their son Sirius, almost 2, to Brilliant Detroit for the past three months to help socialize him.

“We are older parents so he’s not around a lot of children. He’s learning things we can’t teach him, and he’s talking more,” said Selena Parker, a U-M alumna who owns a natural skin care company. “They make the environment warm, and they are very good with the kids.”

The Parkers have found other benefits as well.

“Last week, we had a great conversation among the adults and how we’re parenting children, and we all learned something,” said Brandon Parker, a personal trainer and entrepreneur. “I would call it a child and parent development program.”

Selena Parker said: “Every single parent is supportive of each other. We did a parent exercise and heard from the other parents. The light bulbs go off when you talk to other parents.”

Parents are central to the success of Brilliant Detroit. Johnson, the outreach manager at the Martin Park hub, has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years. It was a chance encounter at church that led her to Brilliant Detroit first as a parent to help with her son’s reading.

Hearing a child her son’s age reading so well, she asked the girl’s parents what resources they used. Over time, Eggleton convinced Johnson to join the organization.

“This is actually an organization that stands behind its mission. Everything that they say that they’re doing, they are doing. And it is definitely community-driven,” Johnson said. “We ask the community, what is it you would like to see? We don’t say, ‘Hey, we’re going to bring this program.'”

By 2024, Brilliant Detroit hopes to expand to 24 sites in Detroit, and it is scaling its model nationally. It also has plans to expand to Pontiac this year.

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