Former Hills church becomes new home for C.A.R.E.S.

The effort to keep a Farmington Hills food pantry open has over the past few years become a $17 million dream that will help more local people in need.

In late June, C.A.R.E.S. (Community Action Resources Empowerment Services) of Farmington Hills bought the former Servant Church of St. Alexander on Shiawassee east of Middlebelt in Farmington Hills. The 10-acre property – including a church building, rectory, and convent – had been nearly vacant since the parish merged more than two years ago with St. Gerald Catholic Church.

CARES of Farmington Hills

Only the 30-year-old food pantry remained; the Archdiocese of Detroit agreed that volunteers could keep using part of the church building until it sold.

In January of 2015, Todd Lipa, who oversees youth programs for the City of Farmington Hills, brought Farmington Hills Mayor Ken Massey and former Farmington Hills mayor and city council member Jerry Ellis together to talk about buying the entire 10-acre property.

Lipa said it felt natural to turn to his two friends. Massey and his wife, Katharine, run the non-profit Graham E. Smith Memorial Fund, created in memory of the son they lost to suicide. Ellis has been involved with the Farmington/Farmington Hills Foundation for Youth and Families backpack program, which supplies food to families through Farmington Public Schools.

The property had a $900,000 price tag. With help from a major donor, the group submitted a $500,000 bid. The Diocese rejected it since no one else had bid on the property. A developer with a project that would serve senior citizens submitted a bid but faced stiff resistance from neighbors during the city’s planning process, Lipa said.

CARES of Farmington Hills

As Massey, Lipa, and Ellis talked about making the site a kind of “one-stop” resource center, the decision was made to form C.A.R.E.S. of Farmington Hills as a division of the Masseys’ non-profit.

The Memorial Fund, which primarily supports activities related to suicide prevention and mental health awareness, had already taken over food pantry operations after Ken Massey learned it was in danger of closing. He said the nonprofit board embraced the move.

“Our mission statement says ‘mental health and wellness of the community’, and part of wellness is nutrition,” he said. “I can’t think of anything more mentally stressful than not knowing where your next meal is coming from.”

Now, C.A.R.E.S. of Farmington Hills operates the pantry, which has extended hours and an expanded service area. In addition, Lipa said, it has been certified, so the facility is regularly inspected by organizations that supply food.

‘Where the miracle starts to happen’

As the pantry transitioned out of St. Gerald’s control, Lipa said, the C.A.R.E.S. team found an ally in the parish’s new priest, Fr. Kris Nowak, who asked if they were still interested in buying the St. Alexander property. The senior complex developer had moved on – but so had a major donor whose support shored up the original $500,000 bid.

“So now, we were scrambling,” Lipa said, “and this is where the miracle starts to happen.”

The group was collecting additional pledges, but they’d also lost all but two of the original donors. Lipa said everyone still believed they would find support. So they made a bold move.

“We called Father Kris on June 19 and told him we would close (on the property) no later than June 29,” Lipa said.

On June 26, after days of talking with potential funders, Ellis received a call from someone who got them halfway to their goal. The following day, a donor who had been approached early in the process capped the drive.

“At 1:52 on June 29, the deal was signed, sealed and paid for,” Lipa said. “C.A.R.E.S. now has an obligation to build a center that will help many people over many years.”

Next: What’s in the $17 million C.A.R.E.S. of Farmington Hills dream?

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