The grass and weeds surrounding the burnt-out house across
the street from Cody College Prep Upper School of Teaching and Learning were
about 4 feet tall when the crew began its work here at 9 a.m. on a recent day in
The 10 paid high school interns from Cody, alongside three General Motors retirees and a recent graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy, decided that securing the abandoned properties was the top priority for their newly formed GM Student Corps team. Not only were the homes an eyesore, they were also potentially dangerous: The empty structures were magnets for illegal activity, and neighborhood children had to walk in the streets because of the brush-covered sidewalks.
Wearing fluorescent orange vests, work gloves, and hats with the Student Corps' sunshine logo, the group used saws, clippers, weed-whackers, rakes, and brooms to chop and bag the debris. After three hours of work and two water breaks, bag lunches arrived in a Chevy Silverado.
The students crossed the street to the park and packed up the tools, knowing they otherwise might disappear before the young people finished lunch in the air-conditioned school cafeteria.
"Look," said Dawin Wright, 61, the team leader and a retired executive, smiling and pointing to the cleared property and adjacent homes the students boarded up earlier in the week. "Those kids are walking down the sidewalk. They didn't do that yesterday."
Cody rising senior Kristi Trader said the Student Corps experience has been good for her and the neighborhood. "You are helping the community by cleaning it up, making it look nicer, and inspiring people to help and have more respect for it," she said.
"And you are really helping yourself. You learn things like how to pace yourself and be a hard worker at the same time."
The Cody team is one of 11 in the Student Corps in what started as a summer employment program, but morphed into a comprehensive experience that combines service, life-skills education, and mentoring. All told, 110 high school students, 60 retirees, and 12 college interns are involved in this, its first year. Since 2010, when the GM Foundation gave $27 million to the United Way to create "networks of excellence" in a handful of high-need area schools, company liaisons have been working with students. Last fall, the idea of a summer internship program emerged.
GM retirees, who oversee the teams, give encouragement to students who are growing up in a city that just filed for bankruptcy, where many grocery stores have bars on the windows, unemployment is higher than the national average at 16.3 percent, and about one-third of the population lives below the poverty line.
"It's not like this everywhere," Mr. Wright told his charges in a mentoring session during lunch. "Until you see something different [from Detroit], that's the way you think it is."
Company officials wanted to do more for schools than write a check. So they turned to Mike DiGiovanni, 65, a retired GM executive, and asked him to become the director of the Student Corps and recruit fellow retirees.
"Our program is unique because it's not just putting kids to work, it's teaching them about life," said Mr. DiGiovanni "It's giving them a paid internship and GM on their resume to set them up for life. This is about exposing them to the
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