roll with the changes.
St. Vincent and Sarah Fisher Center (SVSF) has been a pillar of the Metro Detroit community for 175 years, and from its origins as a kindergarten for orphaned children back in 1844, it has evolved in lockstep with the ever-changing needs of the people and communities they serve.
Throughout its evolution though, the organization’s core belief — that education is essential to helping individuals break the cycle of poverty — has endured, and today, it is the sole focus of their work.
Leading SVSF into its 175th year is Executive Director and CEO Diane Renaud, and it’s clear that a passion for education and the City of Detroit are a part of her DNA.
“I’m the daughter of an educator. My father was a public high school teacher, counselor, principal… He really did it all in his 40 plus year career in education. I was born and raised in Metro Detroit, but I grew up with a great love for the city proper. I attended Wayne State for both my undergraduate and master programs in the 80s and 90s and loved being a part of the activities that were happening in the city during those years.”
Renaud was part of a small but mighty group of Detroiters who refused to turn their backs on the city during some of its most challenging days.
“I remember Avalon opening when most people we're shutting off the lights in the city. I had a great deal of respect for what they were doing because I was also enthusiastic about sticking around and honoring all the good things Detroit still had to offer. It was our town, and we supported it no matter what.”
Before taking the reins at SVSF, Renaud spent a decade in the corporate sector, studying how the business models applied there might translate to the nonprofit world.
“My master’s degree was a comparison of nonprofit and for-profit paradigms to understand how the nonprofit sector needed to take its place at the grownups table to be recognized as one of the major sectors of employment in the United States… I was working for Children’s Hospital after graduation but left to walk the walk of my studies by taking a corporate job. It was a mind and eye-opening experience to see how the other half lived, but when those ten years were up, and a position opened at St Vincent and Sarah Fisher Center, I came running back to the nonprofit sector.”
The position was a perfect fit because it allowed her to unite her newly acquired business acumen with a profound passion for supporting education in the city.
“The center reminded me of Detroit in that its existence was based on the ability to evolve, much like the city itself. Our services have changed over our 175 continuous years, but the reason we're still around is that we recognize fulfilling our mission means helping those in need, in whatever way they need. And given that education is such an important element of the rebirth of Detroit, this was, and still is, the position of my dreams.”
It may have been Renaud’s dream position, but she was also an ideal leader for SVSF at the time, as they were searching for direction after ceasing their residential foster care services a few years prior. In the wake of that decision, Renaud realized that retargeting the organization’s focus back to education was essential to not only their survival, it was also the most effective way to continue helping individuals transform their lives.
Eight years later, it’s clear that the move was the right one because the center continues to achieve remarkable results. However, Renaud and her team remain acutely aware that even after 175 years of progress, there are still many miles to go when it comes to improving outcomes for current and former Detroit Public School students.
“The system did not become broken overnight, and therefore it is not going to be fixed overnight. We’re dealing with generations of systemic problems, and the residents who grew up with those problems — who didn’t get the support they needed when they were in school — don't have a lot of faith in the system because of that. Of course, there are a lot of very good, intelligent, devoted people who are trying to fix those problems, and though it certainly isn’t easy, we just keep our heads down and continue making progress one step at a time.”
The center’s primary contribution to that progress is providing additional academic support for children and adults who’ve slipped through the system’s many cracks, leaving them without fundamental skills that are essential to earning a living.
“One of the biggest issues we see in the communities we serve is a lack of family stability due to economic challenges. We believe those challenges are rooted in education, because if you can't fill out a job application because you're functionally illiterate, then you can’t get a job to help support your family, and you're certainly not helping the economic conditions of the city. So, we're here to help bridge that gap by providing free one-on-one, personalized tutoring and support to both children and adults.”
That support is critical for children in particular because so many require attention that underfunded schools cannot provide.
“For students, we are supplementing what they’re not getting in school and helping identify if they need individualized learning plans or individualized education plans, also known as IEPs, which a lot of schools don't have the resources to do on their own. We also work with parents to help them understand where the schools might be falling short, so they realize that their children are indeed smart, but simply need some extra support.”
That support is available to almost anyone on one condition — they have to want it.
“They have to put in the hard work. We're here for support, but they must be committed. The keys to education are consistency and continuity — to never give up and to keep plugging away at it — so we help remove barriers and provide emotional support so that people can be consistent and achieve their goals. It's too easy to get knocked down and then say, ‘oh well, I didn't want it anyway.’ It takes greater strength of character to persevere through the challenges of your life.”
It’s a lesson that resonates with the individuals they serve, as well as deep in the heart of a city that defines that very same spirit.
“Detroit is such a unique town. There are so many inspiring stories that demonstrate how, through sheer grit and determination, this city has evolved, and now we’re finally being recognized for that. It’s also inspiring to know so many of the people who, though they may not be in the headlines, are working every day to keep their businesses going, or being innovators in their neighborhoods. They're the ones that are saying, ‘if nobody else is gonna do it, we're going to do it for ourselves.’ That sort of inspiration is only born out of necessity, and it’s something you don't see in a lot of other cities.”
Indeed, for Renaud, it is those very people who motivate her to keep furthering the work of the remarkable organization she leads, no matter the challenges they face along the way. And that’s important, because the future of Detroit is very much in the hands of both those they serve, and the volunteers who help bring their mission to life.
“What inspires me is when our students realize that their life can be different. They’re not on a predetermined course, and they have the talent and the ability to take control. That is what keeps us coming back every day. We are also very blessed to have a lot of passionate volunteers that come in on a regular basis. We feed off their energy because they’re not for a paycheck; they're here out of the goodness of their hearts, and that’s contagious.”