Oakland University student Kayla Chriss makes a 60-mile roundtrip drive five days a week from her Shelby Township home to Detroit. While some of her peers might need the lure of a Tigers game or a Fox Theatre concert to make such a drive, Chriss treks downtown for career and personal development.
Although she could have pursued summer opportunities closer to her own neighborhood, Chriss says she wouldn’t have it any other way than working at DTE Energy headquarters as a student employee.
One of 82 student colleagues in DTE’s 12-year-old co-op training program, Chriss recently pitched in to help clean a five-acre vacant lot in Southwest Detroit. Leaders at the company say the effort embodies lessons of professional and personal responsibility.
“The student employment program at DTE requires that students do some sort of outreach, in line with our corporate values,” says Korina Kasperek, human resources supervisor. “Our aspiration is to be a force for growth and prosperity in the community. Our volunteerism increases growth and engagement.”
The lot cleanup at Logan and Central is an ongoing project DTE has adapted in partnership with Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI), which approached the company for help, Kasperek says. The company deployed volunteers to the site in April and June, and will continue helping to clear the land with a third outing later this year.
Chriss enjoys the hands-on approach the company encourages toward the community it serves.
“Giving back to the community is what meant the most to me, seeing cars drive by and blow their horns, and people saying ‘thank you,’” says Chriss, a senior communications major. “Volunteering provides us, as co-ops, an opportunity to enhance our leadership skills. Overall, it was a great experience, and I’m looking forward to doing it again.”
While still in the career training stage, Chriss already sees the value of a combined company effort, apart from its impact on the public.
“You build friendships, you make connections, and it drives that employee engagement,” she says.
UNI, a grassroots organization that promotes vital communities and healthy environments, largely depends on volunteer support to empower its residents and programs. Targeting the Springwells section of Southwest Detroit, UNI collaborates with block clubs, youth groups, and individuals to promote and produce public art, long-term community safety, health and wellness, youth apprenticeships, and development of public spaces. UNI appoints ‘land stewards’ from among residents who contact the organization about neighborhood needs.
“The DTE students have been incredibly helpful working with our land stewards to transform that area of the block,” says UNI volunteer coordinator Samantha Whitham. “Essentially, the residents come to us and say they have an area they’re interested in stewarding, and it can be anything from a trash cleanup to an urban garden, or anything in between.”
Corporate volunteer crews are a valuable resource in UNI’s work, including significant progress made clearing blight from the five acres on Logan.
“We couldn’t have accomplished all that without the support of DTE,” Whitham says.
While the company “offers a pretty robust volunteer program and creates lots of opportunities” for co-ops, Kasperek says student employment mutually benefits DTE.
“We benefit from their energy and the fact that they bring ideas. It’s a great way to expose the students to possible careers in energy, and we benefit from their insights,” she adds.
Meanwhile, UNI invites more Detroit-area corporations to follow suit and partner with the organization, to help transform local neighborhoods.
“That’s the great thing about cleanups. It’s the more, the merrier,” says Whitham. “We can always use volunteers.”
For more information about UNI and its volunteer opportunities visit www.unidetroit.org.