“We are not trying to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of services available to those in need in Flint and they mostly go unutilized. We want to bridge that gap and connect people with the help they need most.”
Athena McKay, Executive Director
Athena McKay was in a quandary. While working as a Flint community liaison with Michigan State University, she and other members of the Flint Eats Project steering committee agreed with MSU researcher, Dr. Joshua Introne, that the Flint Eats App they were developing would be best owned and operated by a non-profit organization in Flint. The trouble was, they couldn’t find an organization with the necessary resources and skills. So, they did the only thing they could think of: they started their own. The steering committee became the board of directors for Flint Innovative Solutions (FIS), a 501c3 non-profit. McKay was named executive director with Kathy Roberts as acting board president. “We started out of necessity,” says McKay. “We needed an organization to handle developing and implementing the Flint Eats App, and everything else expanded from there.”
Today, FIS strategically enriches the well-being of Genesee County residents, boosting access to community resources through multiple programs and services. “One of our main goals is to bring awareness to existing resources and work as an intermediary,” informs McKay. “We are not trying to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of services available to those in need in Flint and they are mostly unutilized. We want to bridge that gap and connect people with the help they need most.”
A concrete example of their mission is the idea that started it all – the Flint Eats App. With a release date of January 15, the Flint Eats App is about to go live and FIS is extremely excited. “Food is our best medicine and the app is designed to provide information to make access to healthy food easier,” says McKay. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that a healthy immune system is very important. Eating right is the best way to keep it strong.” With the Flint Eats App, Greater Flint shoppers will be able to find the best deals, look up nutritional info, share tips on food preparation and, in the future, share complete recipes. “The motor behind it is the community,” explains McKay. “It’s built on crowd-sharing. If you find a great sale on bananas, you can share it on the app, tag others and provide a tip about the best way to pick a bunch. And, in the future, you can share your personal banana bread recipe. That way, all of the great recipes from our grandparents can continue to survive well into the future.”
The app will also work a lot like Facebook in the sense that you can follow friends and “like” posts. App users will be able to post both positive and negative reviews of area stores and vendors. “It can be used as an advocacy tool for ethical practices,” adds McKay. “It’s not just for negative reviews. We want to shine a light on the stores and vendors that are providing the freshest food and the best customer service.” The app will be free to download from your phone’s app store and once downloaded, all that will be needed to start an account is a name and email address.
In preparation for the release of the app, FIS has been providing smart phone training for Flint residents. The population of Flint is mostly older citizens, and after utilizing a pilot listening series funded by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, FIS found that the population would like to use the app but didn’t know how. “Over 200 people asked for help,” says McKay. “With a grant provided by the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, we began conducting smart phone training sessions at three sites: Ebenezer Ministries, Hasselbring Senior Center and Flint Development Center.” The training covered subjects such as downloading apps, QR codes, picture-taking and more, and soon expanded to include using Zoom during the pandemic. “It has been a great success with one citizen telling me, ‘I’m no longer afraid of my phone,’” says McKay with a smile. FIS shifted to web tutorials during the lockdown and offered outside training after restrictions were lifted. Training will continue when it is feasible to do so.
During the pandemic, FIS added tutoring for K-12 students who lacked internet connectivity or tech-savvy parents. “We were hearing that there were students disconnected and isolated from standard schooling. We added the tutoring program to give them a chance,” says McKay. “We set up a learning lab with internet access and provided breakfast and lunch for the kids. For the parents, we provided gas cards.” The program is open to any school-age child in Greater Flint struggling with connectivity. In addition, during the holiday season, FIS held a donation drive for a local elementary school spearheaded by Board Member, Jovan Slaughter.
If that wasn’t enough, FIS, under the eye of the program manager, Kris Johns started the Tire Project. With funding provided by the Ruth Mott Foundation in the spring of 2020, the Tire Project acted as a pilot for North End residents to acquire job training and automotive skills. With training provided by Delta Tire, 11 participants enrolled in the program. After training, participants were assisted with resume creation, job search and placement. The program was another success and there is hope to receive full funding for the next year. FIS would like to add an auto maintenance aspect to help train Flint residents to be able to maintain a vehicle for the duration of its life. And, once the Flint Eats App is operating, FIS hopes to develop an additional app to help stem the tide of opioid abuse in Greater Flint.
Since its inception, FIS has worked hard to bridge gaps and help those in need whenever a need arises. Athena McKay has seen a need for the kind of help that FIS provides since coming back to the city in 2000. Since that time, however, great strides have been made and FIS is proud to be a part of the city’s comeback. “We are greater together. We are resilient and through all our difficulties, Greater Flint has produced athletes, actors, entrepreneurs and community leaders who have impacted the world in positive ways,” adds McKay. “It’s time for us to grow and protect our youth with a safe environment, to create an incentive for them to stay and come back once grown, for the advancement of Flint’s culture. A lot of young people have great ideas for Greater Flint and it is important for the powers-that-be to look beyond norms of funding and structure to allow for fresh ideas while supplying long-standing partnerships for the future.”
For more information, contact Flint Innovative Solutions at 810.529.6607, or visit flintinnovativesolutions.org.