Ypsilanti's New West Willow Neighborhood Association Launches Breakthrough Intergenerational Programs That Lead to Renovation of West Willow Park

Jake Newby

| 6 min read

As recently as three years ago, there was a major disconnect in the West Willow neighborhood of Ypsilanti Township. Some older residents thought poorly of the youth, and many of those feelings were mutual.
“You saw it in the neighborhood association meetings,” said Akin Oluwadare, a program facilitator with Ypsilanti’s Journey of Faith Christian Church. “They’d say, ‘these kids are running wild, there’s no controlling them. We just need to call the police. They need a curfew; they need to go inside and stay inside.’ And for myself, I work closely with youth, and they were saying, ‘hey, these older folks in the neighborhood they don’t understand us, they label us and don’t get to know us. And there’s nothing out here for us to do, so what do they expect us to do?’”
Recognizing this disconnect, the New West Willow Neighborhood Association (NWWNA) made it its mission to bring generations of West Willow residents together to get to know each other better and to quash their biases so they could work together to grow their community. Fast forward three years later, and an emphasis on intergenerational programming at has accomplished more than any party thought possible.
The NWWNA is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization supports and advocates for West Willow residents by connecting neighbors, sharing information, promoting volunteerism, and fostering civic involvement. Through NWWNA, community members have started new initiatives to improve the health of older adults, safety, and the quality of life for both younger and older residents.
NWWNA was already partnering with Journey of Faith, a mission-oriented Christian church, on an initiative to address health inequities for older residents in the neighborhood. Journey of Faith was one of four Washtenaw County-based organizations to receive funding designed to support the health and well-being of older adults, courtesy of the Creating Community Connections and Spaces program. Funded by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM), the BCBSM Foundation and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Journey of Faith received a $171,200 investment in 2023 geared toward facilitating community resiliency and intergenerational economic empowerment.
Oluwadare – a West Willow area community member himself – was contacted by Journey of Faith program supervisor Jo Ella Coles in 2021 about coming aboard to help guide programming. Since then, he’s been empowered to play an active role in leading his community.

Community Garden, Earn and Learn programs contribute to West Willow’s growth

The NWWNA’s Earn and Learn program helps community members earn educational stipends.
It’s common for people from low-income neighborhoods to forego educational opportunities to earn an income that allows them to support themselves and their families. They don’t have the time or luxury of investing in their education and their futures when their bills are due right now.
“That was a huge piece for our youth as well,” he said. “We realized, often, they think, ‘it’s the summer, I need to get a job. I don’t care what type of job it is, I’m going to apply at (a fast food restaurant) to help support my home and to have cash to go to the movies or whatever,’ By having the Earn and Learn program, they’re able to get an educational stipend but also invest in their community and have that civic engagement and have that pride in their neighborhood.”
Under the Earn and Learn program umbrella are two other programs: The Community Garden group and the Storytelling Through Action and Advocacy program. These programs allow residents to earn educational stipends, experience civic engagement, learn financial and entrepreneurship skills, gardening and make intergenerational connections.

Storytelling Through Action and Advocacy initiative leads to renovation of West Willow Park

Oluwadare’s official title within Journey of Faith is Storytelling Through Action and Advocacy (STAA) Facilitator. The program brings community members of all ages together once every other week to sit, chat, share, engage and work to bring change to their community. Oluwadare’s father co-facilitates the program, which is an intergenerational win in and of itself.
When STAA began, there was no large, overarching goal, no pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow. After weeks of community-building get-togethers, Oluwadare and his father noticed a common thread; the youth and elders continually voiced their desire for a fresh, new space in the community, where they could play, feel safe, and host events.
“We collectively said, ‘wow, this sounds like West Willow Park, an improved West Willow Park,’” Oluwadare said, recalling an epiphany of sorts. “’It sounds like a safe park where folks can come together, where we have new resources like a grill, shade and benches.’ This was their commonality, this park idea. It was something everyone could get behind and say, ‘hey, we want this for our neighborhood.’”
This idea started to come to fruition when youth and elders from the STAA initiative began actively attending township meetings and Board of Trustees meetings. At the meetings, they shared their vision with committee members over multiple weeks and months. Eventually, the Board of Trustees made the decision to allocate $350,000 to renovate the park. STAA members then collaborated on a public service announcement video, in which members used their phones to create footage of elders and youth alike advocating for a better park and talking about the things they’d like to change. They illustrated a physical vision for the park, complete with the amenities they’d like to see included.
These efforts also got the green light in West Willow – Oluwadare said renovations are starting soon. From a complete inability to relate to each three years prior to collaborating to make change happen in their community, Journey of Faith’s intergenerational initiatives have made a remarkable impact in West Willow.
“This whole time, we’ve said we want elders and youth to feel empowered, seen and valued,” Oluwadare said. “It’s kind of like, we’ve seen multiple transfers of responsibility. From (the neighborhood association) trusting me and other facilitators to find solutions, to us in turn transferring that responsibility to community members. I see firsthand, our youth and elders within the community feeling that and embodying that as well.”
West Willow Appreciation Day will be a celebration to showcase the NWWNA’s work and the support the neighborhood has received from multiple partners over the years. The event, which includes food and programing, takes place from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 29. Click here to view the flyer and learn more.
Photo credit: NWWNA
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