Reagan Gantz has always used her own light to shine in the darkest of times. Gantz, an alumni of foster care, is no stranger to powering through difficult life circumstances, however, the onset of COVID-19 exacerbated many.
With limited support and housing challenges elevated due to the pandemic, Gantz was forced out of her dorm and laid off from her job with nowhere to live as she was attending college in North Carolina. With the help of Detroit Phoenix Center, Gantz was able to stay in a hotel for weeks and transition back to Detroit at the beginning of the summer. When Gantz returned, she was met with more tragic news – her sister was murdered due to a domestic violence situation with the sister’s boyfriend. Instantly, Gantz became the caretaker of one of her of seven siblings. At the young age of 23, Gantz has taken on responsibilities well beyond her years and as CEO of the Detroit Phoenix Center, Courtney Smith says, “She handles it with grit and grace.”
This summer Gantz battled housing insecurity, grieving the loss of her sister, and still managed to adjust to a new job as an essential worker in the City of Detroit. While working, Gantz completed a summer internship in her field of Culinary Arts and her freshman year of college with a 3.6 grade point average. Two weeks ago, Gantz returned to school in North Carolina, where she is set to graduate with her Associates Degree by Spring of 2021.
Gantz is an outstanding student, youth advocate, caregiver and an individual who truly supports others.
“I remember showing up in grade school to career day and there were fireman, nurses, just a bunch of different people from different companies,” Stefan Perez, 16 of Southwest Detroit remembers. “I never raised my hand to tell them what I wanted to be. Suddenly, one speaker chose me to share with the class what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told them, I just wanted to still be alive at 16. For some reason, I always thought I was supposed to be a statistic.”
Growing up in Southwest Detroit, Perez has experienced adversity and has witnessed more tragedy than most will ever see in a lifetime.
On June 3rd of this year, Perez’s life changed. “On the fourth night of protests in Detroit after George Floyd’s tragic murder, I went down to the protest on Michigan Avenue,” Perez shared. “I went down there to march, but when I got down there an organizer told me to take the podium and speak up. That day, my life changed forever. I finally found real purpose.”
“All we wanted was to reconcile for the people we lost, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, there are so many names, I’m glad that I’m not a name,” Perez shared with a local reporter on TV.
As the day of protesting was about to commence, another potential clash between police and protestors was brewing. Some protestors didn’t want to follow the emergency curfew of 8pm set forth by the Detroit Police Department. “In that moment, I felt like people’s lives were in my hands,” Perez said. “I wanted everyone to return to their homes safe, including the police.” That day, Perez’s leadership didn’t go unnoticed. City of Detroit Mayor, Mike Duggan reached out to him during the protest via cell phone to tell Perez, “He is everything that is special about the City of Detroit.” Duggan went on to tell Perez, “The leadership you are showing right now, is bringing tears to my eyes.”
This call was captured by local media. The video and photo soon ended up circulating on national websites.
“It’s not about how long you can stay in the fight, it’s about how many days you can win,” Perez said. “And that day was a win, because we didn’t lose no people.”
Perez continues to protest and recently marched with Martin Luther King III.
Dameon Robinson is a visionary. Fashion and music have been his passion for as long as he could remember. It almost seems natural progression that when Dameon Robinson graduated from Mumford High School two years ago he would follow his dream.
From the moment Robinson received his diploma he went to work to create Luchiono’s Armoire, a luxury fur clothing line. Over the course of two years, Robinson’s creations have started to receive international attention. Grammy Award winning artist, Ashanti, wore Luchiono’s Armoire on her Millennium Tour this past year. Trina the rapper and reality hip hop star from Black Ink Crew have donned Luchiono’s Armoire on their social media channels.
Robinson has created this company and buzz without any financial backing or a formal education in fashion design or business. This determined young man started to design and manufacture the furs with companies overseas from knowledge he learned online. In fact, all the funding for this company has come from Robinson working at minimum wage job. All the revenue he’s been able to generate has been reinvested into the company.
Vanessa Vela was born into a community that prides themselves on shaping others’ path in life. The spirit of giving is the fabric that makes the Springwell’s neighborhood in Southwest Detroit so special.
Born and raised in Southwest Detroit as one of nine children, Vela saw the impact neighborhood groups had on her community. “As long as I can remember I was in a few of the programs the Urban Neighborhood Initiatives (UNI) programs offered,” Vela shared. “My mom, Paula, worked multiple jobs full time when we were growing up, so these programs allowed us to stay busy when she was working. After participating for so many years, I dreamt of the day I would be able to give back what was given to me.”
Vela, the Community Engagement Manager at Brilliant Detroit, was destined to become a leader in the Springwell’s neighborhood she grew up in. “I love the fact I’m able to be rooted in the community I was raised in,” Vela shares. “It’s a true honor to work alongside families here”
Over the course of the two years Vela has been with Brilliant Detroit, she has worked tirelessly around the clock to call, provide and care for the organization’s Springwell’s Hub. Cindy Eggleton, CEO of Brilliant Detroit, said, “With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, Vanessa leapt into action. She distributed food, learning and basic need resources, and helped neighbors navigate through these turbulent times.”
Throughout Vela’s career, she has spent time working with other non-profit organizations. At Brilliant Detroit Vela says, “I’m excited to impact more children, families and residents, helping them build a space of happiness and growth; one they will always look back on with love and call their home.”
Since April, Chanel Taylor has provided over a million meals to seniors and people in the Detroit, an accomplishment she never knew could be possible.
When the governor put “Stay at Home,” orders into place this past March, Taylor and her friends wanted to be of assistance to seniors in the neighborhood surrounding Historic King Bethel Baptist Church at 14th Street and Linwood. She and her friends began this journey as a delivery service, taking groceries and necessities including medication to residents in the area. She quickly learned there were major hurdles to overcome. Seniors didn’t have the technology to order groceries online, and they weren’t equipped with the financial resources including ATM or debit cards to pay for the products and didn’t have the financial means to cover all of the costs.
Taylor and a friend sprang into action and started to reach out to national and local organizations to provide meals to underserved communities. “In the beginning, everyday our plan would change,” Taylor said. “Every time we thought we’d have enough to feed the community we’d learn there just wasn’t enough.”
Taylor’s devoted dedication and desire to serve led her to national and local organizations that were willing to donate food weekly. She still had to figure out how the volunteers were going to pack boxes in a socially distanced and safe environment, delivery routes, and how to communicate to the community to let them know that food was available for pick up. “I can remember packing boxes with my friends and family until 1am every night in the beginning for early morning deliveries,” Taylor added.
Now, Taylor is the Director of the Program based out of Historic King Bethel Baptist Church. She has recently filed for a non-profit status with the state, and she plans to name the organization Detroit Benevolent Society. Taylor has managed this huge feat while starting law school at University of Detroit this past month.
This year, on the eve of Pierre Knight’s 22nd birthday, one of his best friends died in his arms after the friend was gunned down. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that Knight has experienced this kind of tragedy in his life.
Knight was born and raised in the most dangerous area of Detroit, a neighborhood called “The Red Zone,” an area riddled by senseless gang violence. At 13, Knight’s grandma, his primary caretaker, went to Ray Winans, the co-founder of DLIVE which stands for Detroit Lives are Valuable Every Day, and begged for Winans to help her grandson stay alive. Winans accepted Knight with open arms and began to mentor him.
“When I retire, I want Knight to be my predecessor,” Winans shared. “This young man lives with great purpose and commitment to making this neighborhood we grew up in viable and strong”
Not only has Knight stayed alive, he’s learned how to be a community leader and help his community thrive. Trained as a Community Organizer, Knight has applied his training to his interest in criminal justice reform and continues to address the violence as a public health issue. Knight spends his day committed to youth empowerment, particularly arming this community and peers with information and resources, and actively promotes the importance of being a peacemaker in order to prevent retaliatory violence.
A few years ago, Knight was moved to paint light poles and plant small flower gardens in his neighborhood as memorials to friends he has lost over the years. As soon he put the first one up, it was firebombed in retaliation by an opposing gang. Rather than acting out, Knight went back to the pole and repainted it to show acts of peace and love will eventually make a difference in his neighborhood.
Today, Knight is the Violence Prevention Specialist at DLIVE, he’s learned how to work through his own trauma by participating and facilitating workshops on toxic stress, adverse childhood experiences, and the impact of PTSD on communities penetrated by structural violence.
Knight is also an ambassador of the Young Dreamers program. Pierre maximizes his network and relationships to recruit participants between the ages of 14 and 30 to participate in the program. Knight helps participants get an ID, open a bank account, obtain a credit report, access financial literacy education and connects them with opportunities to develop investment portfolios. Knight believes interrupting violence means people should have their immediate needs met to live and have access to the skills and resources necessary to thrive. After all, many young men and women caught up in the justice system can’t obtain the documents to get an ID, which impacts their ability to access public services housing and employment opportunities.
Pierre Knight is the definition of resilience. His strength, commitment, and unwavering support to his community makes him the perfect candidate for this year’s Detroit Youth Empowerment “Resilience” Award.
“I was 13 when my dad took to the Detroit Boxing Gym,” Romelo White, 24, shared. “I always played and excelled at basketball, but my dad wanted me to explore other ways to stay fit, both mentally and physically. I watched as people boxed. Their focus, stamina and commitment blew me away. I told my dad, that day, this is where I belong.”
For a decade, White went to the gym regularly. First as a student, but as he aged, he found great satisfaction in mentoring. The mental and physical discipline he learned would soon become a skill set that would help him navigate through what came next in life.
At the age of 17, White lost his mother. Months later, his dad died. In the year that followed, White lost the matriarch of his family, his grandmother. White soon found himself as the head of the family and primary caretaker of his siblings and those around him. “The gym was my escape and my reward,” White said. “Watching other young men transform positively through the sport was such a gift.”
Over the course of the last few years, White has continued to evolve. He began a clothing line called “Soldiers Only,” he started a music career and has played around the state and Midwest and has used his experience to start gracing stages as a motivational speaker. “My day starts at 6am – I start each day with praying,” White said. “From that point, I work out for an hour, and then switch gears into my mogul mindset. My days are filled with making clothes, meeting with vendors, producers, or other professionals to move my businesses forward. I end each day researching billionaires and successful business owners to find guidance and information to keep all my dreams moving forward. I watch a lot on Master P, Eric Thomas, Jay Z and 50 Cent.”