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Grants Fund Community Improvements in Michigan

Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski, says a 2021 AARP Community Challenge grant the city received will improve access to key services by including more multi-lingual information about public transit options and installing benches at bus stops often used by older adults.
Photo by: Elaine Cromie

As both the mayor of Hamtramck and the owner of a vintage- clothing shop on its main thoroughfare, Karen Majewski is keenly aware of her city’s diverse population.  

More than 41 percent of its roughly 22,000 residents are foreign-born, and nearly 70 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The language barrier can make it tough for the city’s largely low-income population to use public transportation and find the way to amenities like Veterans Memorial Park. 

“Hamtramck is an urban city; there are many older people who still do their business on foot,” Majewski says. “And it can be really hard to navigate for folks who don’t speak English.”

A 2021 AARP Community Challenge grant will help change that by paying for 11 benches at public housing complexes, parks and commercial areas. 

Each bench will display details about bus service and other low-cost transportation options in English, Arabic and Bengali. Brochures with similar information will be printed and disseminated by local volunteers.

The project is one of four in Michigan to receive Community Challenge grants this year. The program funds small quick-
action projects that have an immediate impact on quality of life.  

“We want to jump-start progress,” says Mike Watson, director of AARP’s Livable Communities initiative. “This year, we saw a real emphasis among applicants on addressing pandemic recovery and focusing on diversity and inclusion.” 

Since 2017, AARP has awarded more than $9 million in grants to some 800 projects nationwide. 

“In the past few years we’ve seen many proposals that focus on outdoors and physical fitness,” says Marianne Samper, 72, of Traverse City, an AARP Michigan volunteer who reviews applications. “You’re constantly trying to look for the balance. How many people will it impact, and how far will the dollars stretch?” 

Two successful applications this year were for Hamtramck projects. Eastern Michigan University’s Center for Health Disparities Innovations and Studies will use its grant to transform a stretch of an alley space into safe gathering spots and shortcuts, says project leader Xining Yang.

Piloting ideas that may inspire more widespread change is a goal of the Community Challenge program. Another 2021 award is going to a group that hopes to help many neighborhoods throughout Michigan test the feasibility of adding protected bike lanes. 

The Lansing-based League of Michigan Bicyclists will use its grant to purchase modular barricades and other gear, to be loaned out a few weeks at a time. More than a dozen communities, from Detroit to Traverse City, have already expressed interest in such bike lanes, says Matt Penniman, communications director for the league. 

In Madison Heights, a grant to the Association of Chinese Americans will help transform a section of a parking lot, with benches and a greenhouse. A gazebo will be added for socializing and hosting tai chi, meditation and light exercise activities.  

“It’s really important for isolated people to have a safe place to relax with one another,” says Peggy Du, the group’s interim
executive director. 

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Melissa Preddy is a writer living in Plymouth.

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