DUrfee Intermediate School

JVS Human Services is set to play a key role in job training and placement for Detroiters needing work at the Durfee Innovation Society.

Photography by Derrick Martinez

The friendly receptionist who greets you in the cavernous entry hall of the Durfee Innovation Society (DIS) on Detroit’s west side says it best when describing the building that once housed the Durfee Intermediate School: “She’s a beautiful beast.”

They don’t make school buildings like this anymore. Its Gothic style features soaring windows, a hardwood gymnasium, wide hallways with ornate crown molding and architectural details throughout. There is even a decaying, marble-laden swimming pool that has the potential to be restored for a community swim club if the right donor comes along.

In October, the school-turned-training/social services incubator will welcome JVS Human Services and ResCare Workforce Services as its newest and biggest tenant. JVS Human Services announced July 29 it has been awarded a $3.5 million joint contract with national employment services agency ResCare Workforce Services by the Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation (DESC) to move into a 10,000-square-foot space inside Durfee.

The award also includes funding for operating the Detroit at Work “WorkForce One” mobile unit to bring job training and placement resources to home-bound residents in Detroit.

In addition to operating the new Durfee Detroit at Work Career Center and WorkForce One mobile unit, JVS and ResCare will also be managing the Detroit at Work Call Center. The call center serves as a central location for Detroiters seeking employment and training resources and will be staffed by several Detroit at Work interns gaining valuable work experience while serving this vital need to Detroit residents.

The new Career Center will be staffed by 25 employees. Additional funding has been provided by the McGregor Foundation for integrating human-centered design elements into the office space and the approach to working with customers.

The opening of the JVS center at Durfee is somewhat of a personal triumph for the organization’s chief operating officer, Paul Blatt. His father-in-law, who attended Central High School (on the same campus), lived on nearby Tuxedo Street.

“I am so excited about JVS securing this space and this DESC contract,” Blatt said. “JVS for 77 years has always delivered our job training resources to the people of Detroit to get them back to school or work. Now we can deliver directly to the neighborhood where they live with our mobile unit. [Our center in Durfee] harkens back to our core mission of helping all Metro Detroiters maximize their potential.”

Durfee Intermediate School opened in 1927 and is located on the curve of Collingwood at LaSalle on Detroit’s west side. It originally served a working-class population, including the children of many Jewish immigrants. Over the decades, population demographics shifted, and the school body was reduced to one-tenth of what it was at its height.

Due to falling test scores, Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD) moved the remaining 600 pupils to a corridor in nearby Central Collegiate Academy and closed the school in 2017. It leased the 143,000-square-foot building for the next 50 years at $1 per year to a man named Chris Lambert, who helped found the nonprofit organization Life Remodeled. (See sidebar.)

With JVS moving in, DIS will be at 89 percent occupancy. Additionally, spaces such as the building’s auditorium, gymnasium and classrooms have been restored and are available to rent for events and functions.

Chris Lambert and Paul Blatt

Blatt met Lambert in 2017 at a Mackinac Policy Conference and was impressed with the missions of DIS and Life Remodeled. Since then, the two have envisioned a JVS center at the site to collaborate on ways to bring job training and other opportunities to Detroit’s west side.

Philanthropic contributions have helped the DIS, from the Jewish community they include generous monetary and in-kind donations from the Edward C. and Linda Dresner Levy Foundation as well as donations from the Durfee Jewish Alumni Association.

Detroit-based law firm Goodman Acker donated $18,000 and mobilized dozens of staff members last summer to weed and mow around the property exterior as well as paint some hallways inside. Partner Jordan Acker’s grandfather and great-uncle grew up in the neighborhood and have come back to Durfee to tell current students living in the neighborhood what their school days were like at Durfee and Central High School.

“My family lived in this neighborhood so giving back to a neighborhood that gave so much to my family has been a personal accomplishment and connection,” Acker said.

With the addition of JVS on hand, Lambert said it will now be more accessible than ever to help those in Detroit’s once-underserved neighborhoods get back to school and work.

“[Durfee] has been the most exciting, difficult and rewarding endeavor I’ve ever been a part of, and it did take time to gain trust from the surrounding community,” Lambert said. “I am convinced we are creating a scalable and sustainable model that will benefit not only Detroit’s west side neighborhoods but also across Detroit and maybe across the country.

“We are like a community quarterback bringing together different service organizations under one roof that makes each one’s individual mission easier to achieve together than if they were located in stand-alone locations.”

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