There are two things Glenn and Essence Wilson have in common: they love their hometown and they love helping people. The couple who founded Communities First, Inc. a non-profit organization committed to promoting and providing an improved quality of life for residents through economic development and affordable housing solutions, is doing just that – helping people build a better community.
Both Glenn and Essence were born and raised in Flint; he attended Northwood University and she attended Kettering University. They met in May 2010, got engaged in October and married in February the following year. “When you know, you know,” Essence says with a smile. Both come from families that were community oriented. “My life has always been about service to others,” says Glenn. As a young man, he worked at a funeral home, and then in the health care industry before founding the nonprofit.
When Essence was attending Kettering, she became involved with the Kagle Leadership Initiative, in which college students mentored high school students. And, she often took a leadership role, pushing for changes or answers on how to get things done. One example is a soup kitchen – rather than focus on meeting people’s basic needs, she would ask: How can we change people’s lives so that they are not dependent on others? “This was my motivation to become community oriented,” she admits.
“When you see what some people are going through,
you have two choices: turn your back or get involved. We choose to get involved.”
The Wilsons make a very good team and abide by the same principles. “When you see what some people are going through, you have two choices: turn your back or get involved. We choose to get involved,” Essence says. And, it is Glenn’s opinion that you cannot be a truly effective leader without a love for people. Communities First has grown in just a few short years. Along with their dedicated board of directors, the Wilsons have allowed the organization to do great work. The first project was the $5.5 million Oak Street Senior Apartments. “We saw a community need, especially for senior housing,” Essence reports. “We thought maybe we could make a difference. It truly has become a success.” Glenn adds, “We don’t build anything we wouldn’t live in ourselves.” There are two other rehabilitation projects underway, Coolidge Elementary and the Swayze Apartment building on Court Street.
Glenn was recently presented with the American Express Aspire Award, which recognizes emerging preservation leaders who demonstrate innovative thinking and achievement in advancing historic preservation in the community.
There are four different programs at Communities First – affordable housing, economic development, arts and cultural outreach, and environment education. “We take a holistic approach to our community work,” Glenn explains. “We are all about providing support to families, believing that strong families build strong neighborhoods and strong neighborhoods build strong communities.”
About 250 people volunteer at Communities First, and many of them are families. “We create opportunities for the whole family to be involved. When I was about seven or eight, I lost family members in a house fire and I saw how it devastated us,” Glenn recalls. “This is why I value family – it can be gone in an instant. I was the only one who made it out of the fire.” He also remembers how other people reached out to help them. “This is where I got my heart to serve others.”
“We have the purest of intentions when it comes to helping people.”
If their obligations to Communities First aren’t enough, both Glenn and Essence devote time to a number of local boards and committees. Glenn is on the boards of the Hurley Foundation, Community and Economic Development Association of Michigan, Mass Transportation Authority, Federal Home Loan Indianapolis Advisory Council, and the Valley Area on Aging. “I want to provide a voice for the marginalized,” he says. Essence is a Flint Institute of Music board member and co-director of Curiosity Academy. She is also on many committees including the Flint Institute of Music, My Brother’s Keeper, and Advisory Technical Education Committee at Southwestern. The couple overheard some parents expressing a need for a Montessori school in Flint, and in a nine-month timeframe, a Montessori kindergarten classroom at Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School became a reality. “We assisted with the grant-writing, finding resources and the group made it happen!” she exclaims.
Both Glenn and Essence work very hard, and it can sometimes be challenging for them to find a balance between their multiple projects, businesses and relationships all at the same time, “Non-profit work at the executive level is very hard,” Essence admits. Spare time is something they know little about. “We are horrible vacationers,” she laughs. “We work on vacation and we haven’t even been on a honeymoon yet!” When they do have spare moments, they enjoy reading and just talking to each other.
Their community work, however, is what they love to do the most. How have they become so successful in such a short time? “Our skill-sets complement each other,” Essence shares. They also credit the success of Communities First to its great board of directors, volunteers and staff. “And, we have a lot of community support,” the couple says. To them, it is all about the community. “We have the purest of intentions when it comes to helping people,” Glenn says, and they are looking forward to future projects. “It keeps us from being selfish,” Essence says. “It always lets us know the world is bigger than us,” her husband adds.
Photography by Eric Dutro