Local fundraiser on tap for Detroit nonprofit organization

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published June 21, 2017

FARMINGTON — When you hear on the news about a woman raped in the Congo, Cheryl Willette can often put a face to that tragedy.

“I know people who have experienced that. I know what they have gone through, and it makes it very personal. The only way that I can deal with that is to know that I am doing something to help somebody that has been traumatized.” 

Willette, a volunteer outreach coordinator at the nonprofit Freedom House Detroit, is co-organizing an upcoming fundraiser for the metro Detroit entity to help those most in need.

The event, “Gathering for a Greater Good: Rekindling Kindness,” is scheduled for 2-5 p.m. June 25 in Riley Park and the Sundquist Pavilion, on Grand River Avenue.

For the last three decades, the metro Detroit shelter has given housing, legal and other services for victims of human trafficking, and survivors of torture and persecution who are seeking legal asylum in the United States and Canada, according to a press release. All services — including job assistance, medical care and more — are free. 

Most asylum seekers represent 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa — including Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Liberia.

Willette and Becky Burns, a Farmington-area resident and event co-organizer, brainstormed — with others — to create the event to assist Freedom House.

“We just started talking about it, and Becky has always wanted to kind of do a community picnic in Riley Park, and it grew,” she said of the event.

The event will feature children’s games, music and potluck-style food. Picnic lunches will be available for pre-order on June 25 from Dagwood’s Deli, The Cheese Lady, Fresh Thyme, Chive Kitchen, Mi.Mosa and Rumi Mediterranean-Persian Restaurant. The suggested donation for the event is $15 per family, but free-will donations will be accepted.

Burns said that the purpose is to support Freedom House in this divisive political climate and to help keep its doors open. 

“We wanted to come up with an event … outside of politics and just have a fun afternoon together — get to know your neighbor,” Burns said. 

Over 35 faith-based, civic and business organizations have supported the endeavor.

Deborah A. Drennan, executive director of Freedom House, said in an email statement that Freedom House is “delighted” that friends in Farmington and Farmington Hills are supporting their mission.  

“Families coming together for a day of fun and fellowship is indeed what the spirit of Freedom House is all about: unity, support, friendship and collaboration,” Drennan said.

Willette and Burns learned in January that Freedom House had temporarily lost its federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funding — roughly $330,000 — which made up 60 percent of its annual budget, according to a press release. 

Burns said that although Freedom House has since regained its funding following an appeals campaign and political pressure, there is a good chance it will not get HUD funding in the future. That could mean that the temporary shelter would not be able to provide for the basic needs of its 35-45 residents, which include children, according to a press release.

“So Freedom House is looking at ways of being self-sustaining, and eventually, if we decide to make it (the fundraiser) an annual event, that is one way to make Freedom House self-sustaining,” Burns said.

Burns’ daughter, Rosie Burns-Pavlik, caught the humanitarian bug from her mother and put on a benefit concert last fall for Freedom House. The idea came along after she babysat toddlers who lived there.

“Cheryl helped get my daughter involved as a babysitter,” Burns said. “The impact that it had on my child is amazing; she sees our community now as a global outlook.”

Willette, who has volunteered for the organization for nine years, said that Freedom House residents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender were discriminated against in their countries, and their sexuality would have been a death sentence in their homeland.

“They’ve experienced tremendous torture,” she said, adding that when they first come to Freedom House they have a “hollowed-out” look on their faces. But that doesn’t last long.

“After they are here for a couple of days, they totally change because they realize they are totally safe,” she said.

For more information or to donate, go to www.freedomhousedetroit.org. For more information about the event, contact Willette at (248) 893-7474.