Known for its music and motors, the city of Detroit also has a ton of heart. Vanita is part of that heartbeat living in a community pulsating through different challenges, hardships, and triumphs big or small. She is a proud wife, mother of five, and a consistent lifeline for young people in her Westside community.
“Community is all we got, and it does take a village,” said Vanita. “I’m an only child. If I didn’t have my friends around me and strong women when my kids were growing up, I don’t know where I would be. My three daughters had great role models [in this community].”
She knows being around good influences is the best way to fight the temptations that often interrupt progress. That’s why Vanita remains determined to create a caring, safe space for her children, and her children’s friends.
“My house was a base to these kids for a whole year. I opened my door to every single one of those boys because I’d rather see them and know they’re okay,” said Vanita. “I’d rather hear what they’re saying in their thoughts and get into their mind than to let them be out there where anything could happen.”
Her safe haven started as a way to keep an eye on her oldest son but soon became rooted in a genuine concern for the well-being of her community and a burning desire to break the cycle of violence and societal pressure that trip up so many.
“My son was going to a funeral every week and I saw it breaking him down emotionally,” said Vanita. “These kids have PTSD before they get into preschool—seeing stuff as kids they shouldn’t see.”
Vanita knows how to recognize it now, having learned about pressures the hard way growing up in Detroit raised by her passionate grandmother.
“My granny was my momma when my momma was unable to be my mother,” said Vanita. “I was 13 when I left home and I did everything that I shouldn’t have done, just trying to survive… I was supposed to be dead at 16.”
Nowadays she turns her early mistakes into a source of knowledge for future generations, tapping into her lived experiences of being forced to sell drugs, being raped, being held captive, and even seeing people die in front of her. Traumatic moments from her past that she recognizes have been recycled as current harsh realities for many teens in her neighborhood.
“We gotta change the narrative. You gotta soften these kids up because they’re growing up in a ‘Nothing Matters Era’,” said Vanita. “When you see people that don’t respect life, they’ll do anything. I don’t want these kids to get to that point. I tell them ‘I want you to feel like you got options.”
She’s a beacon of hope. When asked about the most pressing difficulties facing her community right now, Vanita listed unemployment, lack of resources, negative influences, and overworked parents who often become absent in order to get extra wages to pay bills. These circumstances Vanita feels can be resolved with care and collective effort.
“Every kid needs somebody. I was outside young when I shouldn’t have been outside and I wished I had somebody like me [back then]. I wish I’d met somebody like me,” shared Vanita. “These kids do not want to go to jail. They don’t want to die but the resources are not there and they have nobody to lean on. If they had another option, they’d pick that other option.”
She feels the lack of resources on the Westside of Detroit has a direct influence on the lack of options.
“We’re not affluent enough to have a community center. There’s no storefront where they could walk in and say, ‘Hey I need help’,” she stated. “We’re people, too, and the more resources that are available, the better people can take care of their families.”
Vanita stands tall for her community, even when it sometimes is difficult for her to physically stand without pain, numbness, or a walking cane. The vibrant 44-year-old was a friendly face people relied on as a manager at a local CVS pharmacy until a degenerative disc disease crippled her back, sent numbing sensations down her leg, and forced her to stop working altogether.
“It was the hardest thing in the world to let go in my mind that I couldn’t go back to work. My body had been telling me [for years] but I kept saying I can get better and nothing was getting better,” said Vanita. “I was a bubbly person. Happy-go-lucky lucky everyday. I opened my store every morning and to this day people hug me and tell me they love me.”
The disability was hard for Vanita to accept.
“I had a bone protruding in my spine and had two back surgeries,” said Vanita. “I was in a bad place. I went from working every day to being at home relying on other people, fighting for money [from social security and disability] I was deservant of.”
Vanita vowed to tackle the negativity with the transformative power of positive actions—realizing that if she could influence one person’s life, that person could wind up impacting the world.
She glows when talking about each of her five kids—three girls and two boys. She and her husband, Terry, have spent the past 17 years shaping and growing a family that attends and celebrates every basketball game, sporting event, honor roll, and graduation ceremony. Vivica is the oldest daughter who never hesitates to help with Vanita’s health challenges. She also has a popular following online and around the city as a mixologist. Diamond is Vanita’s 23-year-old college student pursuing her Masters Degree at Michigan State University. Donovan is 18 years old and after a tense, hand-cuffed encounter with the police at age 16, has become an inspiring mentor and mediator to other boys in his community. Yasmin is her youngest daughter who a couple years ago blessed Vanita with her first granddaughter, Malaya. And the youngest child is a 13-year-old “cool kid” named Tyrell who loves to laugh.
“I think I did an okay job of raising my kids to be productive members of society,” shared Vanita. “That’s our motto I’ve been saying to them since they were born that’s what you gotta be. If you keep putting good out there, you’re gonna get good and bad ain’t gonna be chasing you because you doing too much good.”
Vanita admits that her disability has forced her to carve out more time for her community.
“It’s all I have when you don’t have a job. I can sit on the porch and see the neighbors and talk to them and interact with them to hear their stories” she shared. “It’s not being nosey, it’s actually communicating with your neighbors to hear and see and report to each other what we know is going on around us.”
Her first connection to UpTogether occurred in 2023 through a partnership with local community organization FORCE Detroit. She learned of it from a local leader at FORCE Detroit who had previously played a big role in mentoring her oldest son. The Building Peace UpTogether Fund sends money monthly to Vanita and many other families in the Detroit area while encouraging them to meet and become a force of positive influence and change in the community. For Vanita, the direct cash investments to her bank account came right on time.
“Two months prior, my mom had a stroke and she needed my help, financially. I had to take the money from my mortgage to help my mother. I didn’t know how much a late fee is—I’ve never been late,” she said before her voice began to tremble as she recalled the day she learned she would begin receiving the monthly investments. “I think I had $150 to my name the day they called me. That money was the exact money, plus my $150, to pay my mortgage.
Essentially, the Building Peace UpTogether Fund built peace of mind for a mother of five facing with financial hardship.
“When they say He might not come when you want, but He’s always on time. I try to keep a roof over my kid’s head and I’ve done it my entire life,” said Vanita. “That broke me to not be able to pay my mortgage. That fear had me so scared but every single cent of that [first month] plus the $150 that I had went to mortgage. So for it to be offered was a blessing—I’m grateful.”
Vanita’s story shows the strength and resilience of people in our Detroit community. She’s also proof that investing in people is a key.
“What do you want to see when you walk out your door? That’s what we want to see, too. Where do you want to shop? That’s where we want to shop, too. But when you close every school over here… you take everything out the community, what is left? There’s nothing over here but a bunch of [empty] buildings,” said Vanita. “We need investment in our communities. We love, we eat, we bleed the same as everybody else.”