Live-in service program has led to mutual benefits for inner-city ministries, recent graduates looking for a challenge

DETROIT — Faith, service and simplicity. 

It's what the Christ the King Service Corps, a nonprofit Christian service ministry affiliated with Christ the King Parish in northwest Detroit, offers to the volunteers who give up a year of their lives for the sake of others. 

For its members, many of whom come to Detroit from as far away as New Jersey, California or New York, the experience is life-changing. 

For the parish and the ministries it supports, it's game-changing.

The idea was launched in 2010, near West McNichols and Grand River Avenue in northwest Detroit, where Christ the King's parish and school are based. 

“As a parish, we were always coming up with ways to better serve the community,” said Terrance George, Christ the King Service Corps' board president. “We know that a lot of young people volunteer for the Peace Corps, and we thought, 'Maybe they’d come here.'” 

It’s worked.

The service corps supports existing parish ministries and community nonprofits, as well as Christ the King School. Full-time volunteers come to live in Detroit for a year or more and are provided food, living arrangements (an old rectory), old cars to use, health insurance, and a $100/month stipend. 

“They do everything an employee would do, except collect a paycheck,” George said. “People who volunteer have to have a real passion.”

The service corps tries to match volunteers with an agency or ministry in need, but also one that will benefit the volunteer's personal growth goals, George said. 

Volunteering for a year in Detroit might not be for everyone, but the vast majority have worked out well, George said. “Each year we have a welcoming celebration for the new volunteers. You’re coming here to join a city that works together.” 

There are typically four to six volunteers per year. It’s challenging, but rewarding work. 

Katie Little, a volunteer from Holmdel, N.J., decided to do a year of service with the Christ the King Service Corps as a way of giving back after college. “It's been a really humbling experience,” she said.

For Katie Little, a service corps volunteer from Holmdel, N.J., the decision to give back in a city she didn't know was something of a leap of faith.

“There was a faith component that led me to do a year of service, to give back and give thanks,” said Little, who graduated from Princeton University for her undergrad, and went to grad school at Virginia Tech, earning degrees in environmental engineering. 

Little is finishing her year of volunteering as assistant services manager for the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center, which houses early childhood education and athletic programs for disadvantaged youths, as well as a range of other services.

To complement her background in environmental engineering, she’s also the facility's green programs manager. 

“It has pushed me in so many ways,” Little said. “It’s made me relate to people of different backgrounds, getting me out of my comfort zone. It’s been a really humbling experience. I love going to work. Not everyone can say that about their jobs. It’s been very positive.”

Little is one of a number of volunteers who’ve come from many miles away. Some have come from Ohio, New York and California.

Having teachers who are volunteers has been a major boost for Christ the King School, said Fr. Victor Clore, pastor of Christ the King Parish. “A lot of families are below the median income,” Fr. Clore said. “We have to make up for tuition in other ways.”

Shannon Grady, who moved to Detroit from East Providence, R.I., has spent the year working full time as a fourth-grade teacher at Christ the King School.

“You’re not viewed any differently than any other teacher,” said Grady, a graduate of Providence College. “You get to grow professionally.” 

Grady said she was looking for a service program in an urban area, particularly one with challenges like Detroit, where she could grow while applying her skills for the good of others.

“My family was shocked. People thought I was crazy,” Grady said. “They told me, ‘You can always come home, whenever.’” 

She didn’t. Grady had heard a lot of negative stories about the city, but she wasn’t going to let that shape her opinion. “I was ready to see what it was really like with my own eyes,” she said.

A mural is seen painted on the side of the St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center in northwest Detroit, one of the nonprofits supported by the Christ the King Service Corps.

After recently finishing her year of service, Grady admits some days were challenging, but looks back fondly on her experience teaching in one of the most economically depressed cities in America.

“You have so many roles. You’re a teacher, as well as a counselor, crisis manager, et cetera,” Grady said. “Teachers are required to do a lot more than just their job description. I was up late thinking about my students. Some of them came from chaotic situations.” 

It’s given her a greater appreciation for her own life and upbringing. “You realize how fortunate you are,” said Grady, who will begin a new role teaching kindergarten near her hometown, in East Greenwich, R.I. “I came home more of an adult. I feel like now, I could teach anywhere. I’m like, ‘I taught in inner-city Detroit; I’ve got this.'”

The program has, in a small way, helped not only with the revitalization of the city of Detroit, but also, the revitalization of the Catholic Church. 

“Many of the young people have decided to make this their home,” Fr. Clore said. “They’re still active members of the parish. We’ve helped to get young people in the church.”

Little admits, having come from New Jersey, she didn’t know what to expect, but she's grateful for the opportunity to meet so many “wonderful people” along the way.

When asked what other recent college graduates who are considering a year of service should do, she doesn't hesitate. 

“Do it,” Little said. “There’ll be bumps in the road. But, if you can find something that fits, it’s definitely going to be worthwhile.”