'I want to be the adult I needed growing up'

October 25, 2023

A southwest Detroit neighborhood organization has a long history of welcoming UM-Dearborn alums to its staff. Here’s how four Dearborn Wolverine grads are making a difference.

Photo of UM-Dearborn graduates in from of the UNI building
Four UM-Dearborn grads work at Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, where they address community issues in Springwells, a part of southwest Detroit. Photos/Julianne Lindsey

In the basement of a church-turned-community center in Detroit's Springwells neighborhood, Ana Alvarez offers a tour of a new Youth Mental Health Hub. With a beaming smile, she points out features of the space: a fresh coat of yellow and green paint, new couches and comfortable seating, a mural painted by young people from the neighborhood. She then draws attention to a corner of the room that will soon become a private space for professional counseling.

Alvarez, the youth leadership and outreach director at Urban Neighborhood Initiatives, first connected with UNI in 2012 through the Grow Detroit’s Young Talent youth employment program. Building out the organization's new youth-driven Mental Health Hub is part of her current role. It's one she feels well prepared for in part because of her educational background: Alvarez graduated from UM-Dearborn in 2019 with a degree in business administration and marketing.

Alvarez is in good company. She is one of four UM-Dearborn alumni currently working for UNI. Several other alums have transitioned to different organizations after their time there. There are many reasons UNI has drawn so many UM-Dearborn grads: Some grew up in the neighborhood and have had ties to the organization since childhood. Some came through internships. Others came after a career change. The constant, Executive Director Christine Bell says, is that “they all have a confidence that I believe UM-Dearborn fosters in its students. That is so critical.”

Originally called Neighborhood Centers Incorporated, UNI was founded in 1997 to address community issues in Springwells, a part of southwest Detroit. With a current focus on youth development, education and land use/economic development, the organization engages residents of all ages in efforts to create positive change in their neighborhood.

Ana Alvarez

Listening to the needs of youth

To Alvarez, a first-generation college student whose family came to Detroit from Mexico, diversity and inclusion were driving factors in both her decision to attend UM-Dearborn and to work at UNI. “I chose to attend UM-Dearborn because I value diversity. I was able to share experiences with many of the students and professors, and I was able to make friends from all over the world and from different backgrounds,” she says.

From coordinating grant requirements to developing budgets, Alvarez has poured months into working with youth to create UNI’s Mental Health Hub. She’s especially proud that she has been able to support youth leadership through the process: “We listened to the needs of both youth and the larger community and created a space that they envisioned,” she explains.

This work is deeply personal to Alvarez, who grew up in southwest Detroit. “I want to be the adult that I needed growing up,” she says.

Alejandra Gomez

Education as a ticket to a better life

As an adolescent, Alejandra Gomez spent many weekday afternoons in UNI's after-school program. When she was 14, she started working at UNI through its youth employment program. Then, throughout college, she worked at the front desk. When she graduated from UM-Dearborn in 2016 with a degree in international studies, she originally planned to work abroad. But all of her years at UNI compelled her to think more seriously about working in education. “Luckily, my degree program had a broad focus, so I was able to think about applying what I was learning to different sectors, like nonprofits,” Gomez says. “Working in education is so important to me because, as a first generation Latina, education was always a ticket to a better life. Working at UNI, I love that I get to offer opportunities that support our youth, support that many of us were not able to receive,” Gomez says.

Now, she not only works in the neighborhood where she was raised, but at the very organization that helped raise her. After graduation, she began as an AmeriCorps VISTA member at UNI, then she transitioned to coordinator of educational initiatives, and now serves as the educational initiatives director, where she oversees and supports after-school and summer youth programming, the Detroit AmeriCorps Youth Success program and SEEDing for College, a collaboration among several local nonprofits to promote children’s savings accounts for college.

“My role of leading out-of-school time opportunities for youth is so important to me because it creates space for youth to explore different enrichment opportunities and dream of the life they want to create for themselves using post-secondary as a stepping stone,” Gomez reflects. “As someone who grew up three blocks away from UNI, I know how important it is to see other people that look like me walk a similar path and be able to support each other as we create a different path together.”

Daisy Recinos

‘UM-Dearborn gave me a chance’ 

While at UM-Dearborn, where she graduated in 2021 with a degree in communications, Daisy Recinos worked with the SOAR Program on social media and marketing and with the media team in the College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters on promotional videos. She learned about a job opening at UNI from a fellow student in one of her communications classes. “After hearing about their work and how UNI has helped out the neighborhood I grew up in, I wanted to be a part of the organization,” Recinos says.

Now UNI’s marketing and media specialist, Recinos has the opportunity to apply the skills and experiences she gained in her coursework and employment at the university. “UM-Dearborn gave me a chance, and I took it and flew. The university is definitely why I am confident in my abilities and work ethic,” Recios reflects. “Now that I think about it, all of the work I did at UM-Dearborn is basically what I do now at UNI.”

Recinos sees her role as an opportunity to equip young people with new skills. Recently, while working on a video to highlight UNI’s work for a grant application, she made the conscious decision to bring youth into the process. “I like to include youth in our marketing work to teach them what I have learned over the years and help guide them on their journey of creativity,” she explains.

Tanya Aho, UM-Dearborn alum who works for UNI

Helping youth get to college ‘against all odds’

Following her graduation from the College of Education, Health, and Human Services 20 years ago, Tanya Aho enjoyed a decade-long career as a teacher in Detroit. She then transitioned to nonprofit community work, which she believes enables her to better serve young people. “Youth programs in community organizations are able to build relationships that are less restrictive than schools. I also have a very strong belief in youth voice and agency. In general, schools struggle with that, while community organizations, especially over the last decade, have found a way to really encourage and create spaces for that kind of involvement,” Aho says. 

After working for eight years in youth development on Detroit’s east side, Aho recently joined UNI as the post-secondary initiatives program director. In this capacity, Aho works with programs that support youth through the college process, from application to graduation. “I always tell people, ‘I help put kids into college that no one thought would go, and help them graduate,’” Aho says. She recalls recently attending the college graduation of a student who “against all odds was not even supposed to graduate high school.” She reports excitedly, “He is in grad school now!”

Executive Director Bell sees something special in the UM-Dearborn alums on her staff. “They come prepared for a career. They’re willing to engage in creative problem-solving and critical thinking. They come with a professional competence that we often call ‘soft skills’ but that are so critical to getting anything done,” she says. “Showing up, being present, and doing the work. As an executive director, those things are so important.”

Article by Matt Homrich-Knieling
Homrich-Knieling is a freelance writer and current board member of UNI