Caring for a community

Published Jan. 28, 2016: When Tommeia Brown moved back to her hometown of River Rouge, she made a plan to improve her financial situation, and give back to the community she loves.

Photos by Joe Gall. Video by Charles Ashley. Story by Jessica Page-Carreras.

Editor's Note: See more stories of financial success, and find tools to get Financially Fit at www.liveunitedsem.org/FinanciallyFit


At 3:30 p.m. The Guidance Center in River Rouge swells with the familiar sounds of little feet, chattering children and the soft thuds of backpacks hitting tables.

Tommeia Brown, the Center’s Community Education coordinator, greets each child with a hug and two questions:

“Are you hungry? Do you have homework?”

Tommeia, the community education coordinator at Guidance Center in River Rouge, encourages children in her care.

But the 36-year-old mother of a 3-year-old son, Kenyel, Tommeia wrestles with tougher questions.

Questions like: “How do I help these kids reach their dreams?” and “How do I set a good example?”

In the Center’s classroom space, children’s names cut from construction paper are stapled next to drawings of what they want to be when they grow up. Trinity wants to work as a chemist, while Maurice dreams of being a police officer. And for the past two years, Tommeia has encouraged these kids to reach their fullest potential.

“I want to show these kids that they can do anything,” she said.

Tommeia loves her job and the more than 85 children in her care, but she knows that in order to give them a better life, she needs to keep working on her own.

A city in crisis

Tommeia’s family has lived in River Rouge for six generations, and owned three houses in a row on Polk Street. Her childhood memories are filled with summertime community block parties and barbecues.

Tommeia was captain of the River Rouge High School cheerleading team and her aunt was a well-known teacher. The Great Lakes Steel Mill provided jobs to the community. But like many cities in the Rust Belt, the economic crisis of the 2000s hit the community hard.

After high school, Tommeia had left River Rouge. When she returned in 2009, she was shocked at what had become of her hometown. Neighborhoods were peppered with dilapidated homes and boarded-up windows. Signs celebrating local block party groups were illegible, their paint chipped off. Kids had nothing to do after school. People were out of work.

“When I was younger,” she explains, “everyone went to school. Everyone worked. Now, there’s a sense of hopelessness in River Rouge.”

And she could relate to those feelings because personal struggles had left Tommeia in a bad financial situation. But she was determined and wasn’t going to give up on herself — or her city.

On her way up

After dedicating months as a volunteer at The Guidance Center, Tommeia got a job there in 2013 and decided it was a good time to get her finances in order. She had recently moved back to Michigan after living 15 years in Alabama, and hadn’t checked her credit score in more than a decade.

She asked Sandy Abbott, a financial coach and employee at the Guidance Center, for help. Sandy offers community members like Tommeia assistance through The Guidance Center’s participation in the Greater Detroit Centers for Working Families (CWF), which was created by the The Annie E. Casey Foundation and adapted by Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Sandy and Tommeia go over budgets.

When Sandy ran Tommeia's report, the news wasn’t good.

“If she wanted to go get a car, credit card, borrow money – she would never get it,” Sandy recalls. “She was devastated. But you have to know where you are to know where you need to go.”

Tommeia remembers her exact credit score from that day, and how embarrassed she felt.

Sandy asked her if she had hope. When Tommeia said “no,” Sandy offered support.

“And I said ‘Yeah, you do. There’s hope.’” 

A supportive community 

The first time she met Tommeia, Sandy said she got the distinct impression of someone broken down, but not beaten.

“Tommeia was a very vivacious, happy, bubbly person, but I could literally see in her face that she was torn,” Sandy said. “She was on her own; she was lost. She had all these bills and all these things mounting on her, and I told her ‘We just have to peel it off, one thing at a time.’ ”

Using the CWF model, coaches like Sandy help clients address the full scope of their goal — even ones that may be beyond their original target.

For example, Sandy explains, if someone comes in looking for help finding services to supplement their income, employees at The Guidance Center will check to see what else they need, too.

United Way and Detroit LISC provides funding to eight CWF locations, offering one-on-one help throughout the region.

Nick Piper, a Financial Stability Manager with United Way for Southeastern Michigan, adds that the CWF model is unique because it puts a financial lens on problems a family may be facing to help them explore both how to solve that issue today, and over the long haul, too.

“We are looking at the entirety of a person’s financial life, whether it’s employment and job training, asset building, or benefits access,” Nick explains. “You won’t find free, personalized, long-term coaching anywhere else. This is revolutionary and it has seen great success.”

Sandy teaches the community how to manage finances.

For Tommeia, access to the CWF meant that she had a resource right in her backyard to help build a plan to improve her credit score and reach her financial goals.

“The benefit of The Guidance Center is that it’s in the heart of River Rouge,” she says. “It’s not like you have to travel downtown. It’s right here in our neighborhood.”

Sandy thinks Tommeia deserves a little credit, too.

“She was committed; she was dedicated,” Sandy says. “She has patience. She’s energetic. And she did it all in two years.”

Today, things are a lot different for Tommeia. She purchased a car, is paying on a rent-to-own home and continues to improve her career.

And now that she is well on her way to reaching her own goals, she has set her sights on improving her entire community.

“I want the next generation to have a chance,” she says. “That’s my plan for River Rouge.”

A testimony to River Rouge

Meanwhile, the after-school program at The Guidance Center has thrived under her Tommeia’s leadership.

Two years ago, only 10 kids participated in the after-school program. Now, there are 85 enrolled. There, kids get a healthy meal, homework help and access to computers. And they get Tommeia, who offers her encouragement and problem-solving advice.

Tommeia Brown hugs Sandy Abbott, the coach who helped her build a financial plan.

Tommeia has big ideas for the future of The Guidance Center: “I want it to grow so big that the walls can’t contain us anymore.”

If she seems ambitious, she is. But she hopes others in River Rouge will hear her story, get the help they need, and start to dream big, too.

“My story is a testimony to the people in River Rouge,” she said. “We can still make it.”