The concept of Life Remodeled began simply enough: Build a house from the ground up in six days and give it to a family in need.
In the six years since that 2011 Six-Day Project, Life Remodeled has grown into a massive annual undertaking with tens of thousands of volunteers busting blight for six days each August while professional contractors donate labor and materials to transform a community asset, such as a school or park. True to its tagline, “Remodeling Lives One Neighborhood at a Time,” the Detroit non-profit, led by 37-year-old Founder and CEO Chris Lambert, will take on its most audacious project yet in the Central High School neighborhood this summer.
As the founding pastor of a small church in Westland, Michigan, in 2011, Lambert – partly inspired by the ABC-TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” – saw the opportunity to make a difference in the community. He reached out to friends and parishioners, and within just a few months was able to gather a couple hundred skilled and unskilled volunteers to build a house from scratch in six days.
They presented it to an underprivileged family who could pay utilities and taxes but was otherwise unable to afford home ownership. Upon presentation, the deed also provided free financial advice and family counseling, along with a cleanup of the surrounding neighborhood. This holistic approach, which took into account the ongoing financial, community and spiritual support for the family, was appropriately dubbed ‘Life Remodeled’.
By the time he was gearing up to repeat the play in four suburbs in 2012, Lambert was fully engaged in discussions to feature
Life Remodeled in a TV reality show. Lambert intended that the deal would fund the mission. But just before a contract was signed with a Los Angeles producer, the deal fell through.
“Even after the TV show idea died,” Lambert says, “I thought the strategy would be to continue as we started.”
He remained committed to “find a way to fund the renovation of homes for folks who needed the help.”
That he did. After bringing the concept to people throughout southeastern Michigan, the idea really caught on. The more Lambert engaged with a wider audience, the clearer the need became to focus in the city. Life Remodeled moved into Detroit for the first time in 2013, swelling from a few hundred volunteers to 5,000, including large groups from General Motors and Quicken Loans. Over six days in the North End, debris was cleared from 65 blocks, repairs were completed on 20 homes, and a new house was constructed from scratch.
Then he had an epiphany.
“One day, it came to me that we were not supposed to be putting our efforts solely into residential projects anymore,” Lambert recalls.
He realized that homes anchor families, but schools should really anchor the neighborhoods where those families live.
“So, we reached out to Detroit Public Schools and we asked the leadership, ‘If we were to commit to helping one Detroit Public School and the surrounding neighborhood each summer for the next three years, where would you have us do that?’” Lambert remembers.
The first choice was Cody High School and the surrounding Cody Rouge neighborhood.
With the DPS partnership came far greater expectations and needs for resources.
“I had never run a non-profit,” Lambert says. “I didn’t even know what a foundation was until 2013, and I didn’t know how to raise money. I did not like to ask for money.”
As he began networking for what would be the $5.5 million Cody project in 2014, Lambert relied on relationship building – “finding out who people are and what they are passionate about” – over a canned sales pitch or elevator speech.
“I spend over half my time casting vision and inviting new partners to join the mission,” Lambert says. “I tell the stories of past projects, how lives have been transformed.”
He spent countless hours connecting with everyone from corporations to government representatives to church groups, using his ability to do as much listening as talking toward forming the project plan.
At Cody High, Life Remodeled volunteers painted, deep-cleaned and scraped chewing gum from the bottom of school desks. Professional contractors donated the labor and materials for projects, including a state-of-the-art medical simulation lab, a STEM lab including a $300,000 manufacturing robot, and the training materials for students to learn how to program it.
The biggest undertaking was across the street from the school – a new synthetic turf football field later named Hope Field – where the Cody Comets could finally host home games after six seasons on the road. Thousands more volunteers boarded up vacant houses and cleared brush and debris on 303 blocks of Cody Rouge.
With Life Remodeled as the catalyst, dozens of groups continue to invest in the area, helping to sustain what started three years ago.
In 2015, Life Remodeled turned its attention to Osborn on the city’s east side, where on rainy days water literally poured inside the high school, forcing students to seek dry ground and dodge soaked bits of falling ceiling tile. Enough cash and in-kind contributions of labor and materials were raised to resurface 70 percent of the roof. A new gym and weight room were among the in-school projects. Refurbished boards from worn-out bleachers in the gym now adorn the walls of an expanded cafeteria and decorate desks in the main office.
Today, the Osborn neighborhood and school reap benefits from the work begun that summer. The Osborn High School boy’s basketball team made it to the “elite eight” last year, and Coach Lonnell Williams thanks the Life Remodeled partners and donors for the opportunity.
“He thanked everyone who participated and said, ‘You know, we couldn’t have done it without the gym and the weight room. Not only did it give our kids more inspiration to work harder, but it helped us impress parents to send their kids to the school,’” Lambert says.
The year 2016 brought Life Remodeled to the Denby neighborhood, where the high school was in good shape from recent bond-financed upgrades, but the surrounding areas were in a state of neglect. Life Remodeled focused on the adjacent overgrown and under-equipped Skinner Playfield, a constant reminder to students that when the school day ended, there was no safe place to hang out. Professional contractors, many of whom had worked on the recent project at Cody, donated labor and materials for a state-of-the-art performance pavilion, basketball and recreation courts, and picnic shelters.
Last August, an army of volunteers took on blight throughout major portions of Denby. The effort included 10,700 volunteers from Denby, as well as employees from 250 businesses, members of area churches and supporters from neighboring suburbs. They were joined by youth groups from as far away as Maine. Working together, the volunteers tackled blight on 300 city blocks. They boarded up 362 vacant houses, put the finishing touches on Skinner Park, added planter boxes for urban farming and painted newly installed basketball courts.
Of course, neighborhood revitalization isn’t the only thing that Life Remodeled does. Flashback to October of 2015: We find Chris Lambert walking along the exposed red brick and stonework in the first-floor hallway of Central High School as he and former principal David Oclander ponder the idea: Could Central – Detroit’s oldest public secondary high school, dating back to the 1850s – evolve today into a business incubator, the likes of TechTown and Ponyride?
Lambert could see it: entrepreneurs teaching classes, sharing their projects, mentoring, maybe creating apprenticeships.
“Oclander brought a fantastic vision to the picture,” recalls Lambert, “As he saw it, the incubator could have occupied the entire first floor.”
As the idea took shape, it grew into an even bigger plan. Neighboring Durfee Elementary-Middle School’s enrollment was down, and the DPS had plans to condense the student body into a K-12 at Central, leaving the Durfee building as an option for a fully operating Community Innovation Center.
Now known as the Durfee Community Innovation Center, the project will begin this summer and is off the charts in scope compared with what the mission has undertaken to date. Life Remodeled’s nine-person staff is fully immersed in helping bring recreation, jobs, educational opportunities and more life to the community.
Life Remodeled will operate in Durfee for $1-a-year lease, with both the DPS and Lambert noting that the unique agreement will allow them to tackle the complexities of transformation and upkeep costs.
“The reason we were offered this opportunity is because the school system knows we can deliver on our commitments,” Lambert says. “And we’re dedicated to working with all our partners to make this beautiful building an inspiring place to be over the long haul.”
Ricardo Martin, Durfee’s principal the last four years, has done his part to make the school ready for transformation, leading a grant-writing team that won Target Corporation’s Library Makeover Grant two years ago. Durfee also was the K-8 winner of the 2014 Benjamin Carson Reading Room Grant, that creates a place for leisure reading. As he leads his students into Central this fall, Martin cheers for Life Remodeled to succeed.
“This is an opportunity to renew this community, to provide opportunities that just don’t exist today for kids,” Martin says.
Lambert counts at least five likely tenants for the Community Innovation Center – Toarmina’s Pizza, impact investment capital administrator Gingras Global, a Junior Achievement BizTown, an after-school music program run by Life Remodeled’s hip-hop artist and community events director, Dominique Rhodes, and the non-denominational Detroit Church, which already holds Sunday worship in the school’s first-floor cafetorium.
Lambert thinks he knows why Life Remodeled continues to grow year after year.
“People are really moved by the action-oriented results that they see. They are moved by the city-suburb relationship. They want to do what they do best on a project they are confident is going to work.”
But what really makes the difference is the Life Remodeled credo of people over projects.
“I try to show (volunteers and contributors) they are just as valuable as the kids and the community we are serving,” Lambert says. “This is a place where businesses and non-profits are going to want to be. There is a lot to be proven, but who would not want to be here? It has a great feel to it. And it all ties back into kids and the surrounding community.”