In what may be America's roughest neighborhood, where many kids feel forgotten and hope is thin, Seven Mile Music shines a light of humanity.
Seven Mile Music offers free music instruction to kids in Detroit's impoverished Brightmoor neighborhood.
"This is Motown," said Rev. Sammeal Thomas of City Covenant Church. "You would think you could go anywhere and find music. You can't."
A community built in the 1920s to house auto workers, Brightmoor declined in parallel with Detroit's auto industry. Today's Brightmoor children, and their parents, never knew the Detroit that was a worldwide example of modernity, according to Thomas. The pastor's church aligns with Mission: City community center and Seven Mile Music to bring neighborhood children the chance to learn and grow through the joy of music.
Brightmoor's children face extreme challenges in their daily life, said Thomas. He pointed out that half of the community's 7,000 youth live 150 percent below the federal poverty line. The Detroit Public School's epic budget problems magnify the level of adversity many Motown kids experience. Arts education has long been abandoned.
Thomas admits he didn't originally view arts cuts as a major issue.
"When you don't have police and fire (protection) who needs arts?" he said. "I had no idea about the connection between arts and academics."
That was until Seven Mile Music entered the picture. Founded by University of Michigan student Sam Saunders, the K-12 program offers Brightmoor kids free weekly music lessons throughout the academic year and a free summer music and art camp.
Saunders launched the organization following his freshman year after learning of the elimination of Detroit school arts programs.
"These were the children most in need of music," he said.
The pianist from Charleston, West Virginia, knows music's transformative power first-hand. Saunders was a teen at risk for not graduating from high school until he realized music could provide a positive focus for his life.
In 2012, Saunders set out to find a home for his idea to bring together underserved youth with university student musicians. It was an uphill battle. He found Detroit's disadvantaged communities had little Internet presence for facilitating contacts. Saunders had no option but to hit the streets to find people willing to support his plan.
"I started driving down Seven Mile Road, one of the notorious marks of inner city Detroit," he said. "I stopped at every community center and church along the way."
After weeks of pounding the pavement, he found Mission: City.
"Sam didn't come here thinking he was going to fix us," said Thomas. "He came to see what he could do alongside us. It was the perfect fit."
The depth of cultural poverty Brightmoor children experience still stuns Saunders.
"A lot of the children between six and ten years old have never heard of a violin," he said.
Many lack the concept that instruments produce music, Saunders added. Despite the Brightmoor youngsters' narrow education, they easily tap into their affinity for music.
"We have talented, sweet kids that are illiterate, but they pick up the instruments so quickly," he said.
As the nonprofit organization's executive director, Saunders developed a corps of student instructors, plus a trio of Brightmoor volunteer musicians. The group raised funds and built a modest collection of teaching instruments including violins, guitars, pianos, cellos and drum pads. They created a musical bridge between the privileged university world and a world plagued by poverty.
University musicians previously reluctant to step foot in inner city Detroit, joined the Seven Mile Music entourage throughout the school year for the 30-mile trip from campus to Brightmoor. Three weekly sessions engage 50 neighborhood kids during the academic year.
"Aside from the education, it's humanizing," said Saunders. "We saw that the kids are not really much different than we were at the same age - they're normal, fun-loving kids."
Thomas credits the university students for opening themselves to the experience.
"You can get caught up in yourself," he said. "Sometimes you need to see there is another world."
While marked by poverty, the community has a strong spirit, Saunders noted.
"There are well-spoken, powerful people who have spent their life in Brightmoor," he said. "The university students get to learn more by speaking to these people than they learn in a semester at university."
Saunders graduated in May. He relocated to Brightmoor where he will devote the next year to building the music program.
"I'm moving into the only house left on the street - by the church," he said.
From his new base, Saunders will oversee the Seven Mile Music and Mission: City's second annual free summer camp. Camp runs weekdays from mid-July through August. Kids receive a free breakfast and lunch, art and music lessons. About 60 youngsters are expected to attend.
Thomas attributes the music instruction, along with Mission: City tutoring and mentoring efforts, to a marked increase in student grades. Program success is also measured in less tangible ways. It shows on the young faces when they conquer a piece of music, said Saunders. In an environment where few doors open for kids, Seven Mile Music shows kids the how to achieve results through hard work.
The student-driven program founded on the tenacity of one musician contributes to a growing optimism for a better future for Motown's children.
"It's a tremendous season for us," said Thomas. "Because Detroit is rebounding."