The porch needed work. When Megan Heyza moved into her new house on Flint’s Eastside in 2016, it was something she immediately noticed. “Over six weeks, I did some landscaping, ripped out some bushes, did repairs and painted it. While I was doing that, my neighbor started to engage with me,” she says, “so, I got the idea that if working on my porch started a connection, then maybe it could work for other people.” In 2017, Heyza and other members in her community formed the Eastside Improvement Association to help beautify and protect the neighborhood – going porch to porch. They quickly realized that they were onto something special and soon thereafter, Heyza started The Porch Project. “The primary goal is to use beautification efforts, porch repairs and increased lighting to promote neighborliness in the community,” she states.
The project starts with outreach. Many Eastside residents are without transportation and getting them to attend neighborhood meetings may not be the best way to assess need. So instead, Heyza and other volunteers like to connect with other neighborhood residents with what they call “porch meetings.” She explains, “I engage with neighbors on their front porches and while doing so, they let me know their needs and issues and we address them. We then encourage those we help to go out and connect with another neighbor, so they understand the importance of giving back. It’s how we build connections in our community and create a sense of belonging.”
At first, what surprised Heyza the most was how important porch appeal is to Eastside residents. It was one of the major complaints. “When I started going out and engaging with neighbors, it was brought up in multiple meetings,” Heyza remembers. “So, we found an issue that connected a lot of people and from there, we approached funders.” Soon, multiple institutions, businesses and volunteers began to help in any way they could. The Porch Project currently partners with Kettering University, the Genesee County Land Bank, University of Michigan-Flint, Chemical Bank, Mid-Michigan Pride Painting, Neighborhood Engagement Hub, Genesee Career Institute, Eagle Excavation, Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, Trio Paint, Pratt & Lambert and Wrens Photo Portrait Studio. Through the help of partners and over 100 volunteers, The Porch Project was able to help 53 households on Flint’s Eastside in 2018. Whether it was paint, landscaping, planting flowers, replacing a handrail or a total rebuild, each house presented with a different need, and The Porch Project was there to fill it. In addition, The Porch Project was able to provide 27 homes with solar lights.
While the aesthetic results are amazing, the best outcome of the project is the renewed sense of community and neighborhood. Relationships new and old are strengthened and friendships are formed. “Outsiders hear about Flint and just assume that nobody trusts anybody and that no one would help their neighbor – and that’s not true. The connections here are real,” Heyza continues. “When I began to talk to my neighbors, I realized that there is so much community in Flint, it’s just hidden. I really got to see the roots of our community. In a way, the Porch Project is just a way to uncover those roots.”
When not outside engaged with the community, Heyza has been working closely with the UM-Flint Office of Research, and Porch Project volunteer, biologist Dr. Rebecca Tonietto, to change the way research is conducted in communities. “The secondary goal of our project is to be a liaison for universities and organizations to provide avenues for research and grass roots impact,” Heyza says. “The standard approach to assessing community need is quantitative, reducing a living, breathing person to a number or a survey result. We’ve taken the social connection out of community work. Once you turn someone into a number, they are no longer a human with struggles and concerns – they are forgotten. For this reason, I believe that Flint is overanalyzed and under-served. There is no real value in survey numbers. I would rather sit down at the table and ask people what they need.” Heyza and Tonietto will attend the Building Michigan Communities Conference in April, where they will speak about how to use community-engaged research to truly address residents’ needs.
For Heyza and The Porch Project, this year (2019) will be a big one. It’s expanding to include Flint’s Mott-Tuuri-Durant area and the North end. “We are looking to help 25 homes in the Durant area and 20 more on the Eastside. All of the rest will be on the North end,” informs Heyza. All in all, she hopes to impact 100 homes this year. The Flint Firefighters Union will be joining the project on April 13 and May 4 to help provide porch repairs and landscaping. Recently, the project was rewarded with funding from the Ruth Mott Foundation.
“I would love to see this become a national non-profit. I believe everyone will see the value of what we do,” hopes Heyza. “The Porch Project isn’t named that because we repair porches; it’s named that because interacting with people on their front porches helps us solve a problem and build a stronger community.”
If you have any questions or would like to volunteer and help the Porch Project, please fill out the form at theporchproject.org, email Megan Heyza at email@example.com or call 810.228.9673.
Photos provided by The Porch project