Money from Verizon, Ford Motor Company will help Catholic-founded nonprofit offer technology, transportation aid

DETROIT — Since 1992, underserved girls and women in southwest Detroit have benefited from the good work of the Mercy Education Project (MEP), an organization founded by the Sisters of Mercy to provide tutoring and literacy skills. 

Now, thanks to grants from Verizon and Ford Motor Company, the nonprofit can help clients and their families even more.  

On Feb. 5, Verizon awarded the Mercy Education Project a two-year, $100,000 grant to offer digital literacy education to the people it serves. The nonprofit will use the grant to facilitate workshops for basic computer skills, teaching clients how to navigate the internet, apply for jobs online, and use Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Google Docs. 

Family members and those in the community will also be invited to participate in similar workshops on weekends.

Tupac Hunter, manager of local government affairs and community engagement for Verizon, presents the staff of the Mercy Education Project with a check for $100,000 on Feb. 5 to expand the nonprofit's digital literacy services.  

“The girls and women we serve don’t have access to technology or the internet, which puts them at a major disadvantage,” Janette Phillips, director of development and major gifts for the Mercy Education Project, told Detroit Catholic. “This grant will give us the ability to change that.”

Phillips hopes to receive additional donations to provide a computer to each student to continue learning and studying independently at home. 

In addition to the Verizon grant, a group of Mercy Education Project high school students was selected as one of three winning project proposals in the “City: One Michigan Central Station Challenge” sponsored by Ford Motor Company. The contest attracted 164 project proposals, with a goal of working with Detroit residents to find ways to improve mobility in the community, especially for those working and visiting the area around Michigan Central Station, which Ford purchased in 2018.

The girls worked with Mercy Education Project mentors to pitch their “Rock City Mobility Stations,” kiosks around the city that will provide maps, bus schedules, parking and other information to make it easier for pedestrians, bus riders, bike- and ride-sharing travelers to navigate the city. The Mercy Education Project will receive $85,000 from Ford to bring the kiosks to life. 

A program for everyone

Each year, the Mercy Education Project tutors 250 girls and women. Participants typically hear about the program through word of mouth, though the nonprofit sometimes reaches out to women at their apartment complexes and community spaces.

Kathy Ojeda, retired lead teacher at Mercy Education Project, teaches math to Sheila Jackson last summer.

April Tate, a mother of three adult children and two grandchildren, grew up in foster care when a pregnancy at age 15 caused her to drop out of high school. After her daughter was born, she struggled to support her family without a diploma or skills, but now she is working to earn her GED through the Mercy Education Project and will benefit from its digital literacy program. 

“My daughters told me, “Mom, it’s never too late. You can always go back and get your education whenever you need it,’” Tate said.

In 28 years, the Mercy Education Project has helped more than 3,500 women and girls, and more than 120 volunteers support the program, including the Sisters of Mercy, who began the organization and continue to provide roughly 10% of the operating budget, in addition to teaching and serving on the board of directors.

During the week, the Afterschool Girls’ Tutoring Program provides bus transportation for girls as young as second grade. Girls attend once a week and enjoy a meal, a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-based activity and 60 minutes of one-on-one tutoring in reading or math. Tutors are assigned to one girl for the entire school year to build a relationship. Middle school girls may sign up for the Emerging Leaders Summer Program in addition to tutoring.

Mercy Education Project students received new hats, scarves and gloves for the holidays, along with books for their March Book Club event.

For older girls in 11th and 12th grade, the College & Career Readiness Program includes ACT/SAT test preparation, guest speakers and college tours during spring break.

Van transportation or bus passes are provided for adult women in the program, who attend four days a week and receive individualized tutoring and classroom instruction to prepare for their GED. The program also teaches work readiness skills and equips women for the next step after they’ve achieved their GED.

Phillips believes the Mercy Education Project’s one-on-one approach is key to its success.

“Some programs are mostly online with less of a personal touch, but we’re the opposite of that,” Phillips said. “These girls, these women need the encouragement, the attention, the focus. All people need that.”

Some participants come to the Mercy Education Project for assistance in their 50s and 60s.  

Those served are given an assessment to determine where to begin. Even if a participant needs to leave the program for medical reasons or other crises, they are encouraged to return at any time, Phillips said.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re 55 and you haven’t finished high school. We’ll help women at whatever level they come to us and at any age,” Phillips said.  

How to help

The Mercy Education Project’s annual fundraising dinner, “Doorway to the Future,” will be held March 26 at the Dearborn Inn. To register, visit www.mepgiving.com and click on “Doorway 2020.” To learn about the organization, volunteer, or make a contribution, visit www.mercyed.net. To donate a new or used computer to MEP’s digital literacy initiative, contact Janette Phillips at (313) 963-5881.