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Bonnie Billups, Jr.



1111 North Maple Road
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103
Bonnie Billups, Peace Neighborhood Center executive director, is an alumnus who has been involved with Peace since he first participated at ten years old. Billups is a successful, college-educated, professional product of the center’s efforts to keep kids on the right track – a living example of the organization’s long-time efforts to help at-risk Ann Arbor area children achieve their dreams through prevention and education.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Peace Neighborhood Center Executive Director Bonnie Billups, Jr: A leader helps to corral a person’s skills, gifts and desires. We do this to help them recognize the strengths that some didn’t even know they had – and to encourage that person to put these talents to work. Work that helps them meet their goals.
As a leader, I must recognize my own deficits and face the fact that I cannot be good at everything. I have learned that one person’s weakness is another one’s strong point. When this kind of thing happens to me, I go the staff members, volunteers, or other committed individuals to find people who have the skills I need but do not have.
For a few years, I primarily supervised our interns. I was OK at it, but I had someone on staff who could do it better. She was more patient and could organize and structure the program better that I could. I had too many balls in the air, and that happens to be one of my own deficits. A good leader knows when it’s time to pass something along to someone else.
I want all youth to have the same opportunities for enrichment and education as other kids, no matter what their family income, no matter what the color of their skin.

What is your dream for kids?
I have so many. I dream that every kid could feel supported and loved and that they all have people they could turn to -- people they trust and feel safe with. I dream that our structured support inspires our kids and helps lead them to success, including academic and social success, so they become positive members of humanity. 
Some of my dreams for kids are the things that we, as a society, fail to provide for them. If they don’t feel inspired, if they do not have the opportunities they need, they cannot reach their full potential. They cannot rise to greatness. That’s what we are here to do here for them. I want all youth to have the same opportunities for enrichment and education as other kids, no matter what their family income, no matter what the color of their skin. I experienced this and it has helped shape me into who I am today.
Because of our commonalities, I can honestly share some of their experiences. I am a person of color, just like the majority of our students. Some of them come from families where substance abuse is common, and I grew up with a father who drank too much. Some are growing up in the same economic conditions that I did. I look at them and I see myself.
My biggest dream for kids? Let me explain before I tell you what it is. My family was what I call “working poor.” My father was a janitor and a bus driver and my Mom worked on factory assembly lines. We didn’t have the things that middle class families have, such as home ownership. We always rented. I got one pair of shoes from K-Mart every year and I wore them until they wore out. We couldn’t take family vacations.
But, every summer, I took a trip – and they were not just any trips, they were fantastic, exciting opportunities known as “Operation Education” through Peace Neighborhood Center. We only went to places of historical or educational influence. I went camping for the first time and ended up in a small leadership role – at 10 years old – over a group of 50 boys who had also never been camping. I rode a subway for the first time in New York City while we were visiting the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. We toured the nation’s capital and got to see Chicago’s famous museums and the skyscraper that was called the Sears Tower back then.
Because of “Operation Education,” we went to places that even some of the middle class kids we knew had not been. I want all kids to have the opportunities that I had through Peace. So here’s my biggest dream for kids: on the first day back to school, when every child stands up to talk about what they did last summer, that each one, even those living in poverty, will have something really exciting to report.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
One main thing is that some of the people in charge of the purse strings – of the money it takes to fund nonprofit programs – are somewhat removed from the real world.
What I mean is that the foundations, the government bodies, and the people who make funding decisions simply must be able to see the need for our preventative programs. They have to believe in them and see how valuable they have become
I have lived some of the struggles that these kids have, and that connection helps me reach out to kids who need us and make real progress.
to our society. We work on the side of prevention with our programs, so donations to Peace Neighborhood Center are an investment that will decrease the need for the other services that address our social ills – the conditions that can breed poverty, drug abuse and crime.
I know that if more people recognized how valuable prevention programs are, that we would see a decrease in more expensive intervention programs, like treatment for substance abusers and the ones designed to keep young people out of our prisons.
How do you know that you’re making progress?
I am actively involved in the lives of the children and families that we serve, so I get to see the positive results that kids experience though our programs I get to see their successes happen right before my eyes. That goes for everyone who works here, really, because we work for an organization where everyone has their fingers on the pulses of the families we serve.
You see, I am not like many other agency directors – I am a product of the Peace Neighborhood Center’s REACH program [which existed under various monikers over the years] and have been thriving here since I was a boy. It changed my life and gave me the skills and tools to reach my goals, to do things I couldn’t have done without them. I have lived some of the struggles that these kids have, and that connection helps me reach out to kids who need us and make real progress.
Progress happens in so many ways, though. I’ll give you a hypothetical example. Let’s say that two family members have not been speaking to each other, for some reason. This kind of unspoken conflict hurts the rest of the family – not only the two involved. So when those two family members resolve their conflict using skills they learned from us, from our youth programs here at Peace, I see growth. When we help a homeless family find a place to live, I see hope.
I see families become whole again.
What are you most proud of?
This organization has been around for 43 years, serving people who need us with dignity and respect. I am proud to be a part of that. I’m proud to come to work every day to a group of people whose hearts are tuned in to making this community a better place through our children. I am very proud to see children thrive and grow.
Some of our youth come to us with educational issues – they are not engaged in school and don’t know the value of a good education. I’m proud when I see them turn around and become happy, committed students who are now devoted to school and are serious about setting educational goals for themselves.
Our board members, staff members, and volunteers are dedicated to bring about change in our community – change that we hope will create a snowball effect and spread to other communities. We would be overwhelmed if we tried to think about the complexity of the world’s problems, so this is really a grass-roots effort. These efforts are something that we can all be proud of.
What keeps you awake at night?
Nothing. Every night, I reflect back on my day, thinking about what I did well, what I did not do well, and about what I will do differently tomorrow. Tomorrow is a new day, and a new challenge for me to grow and learn how to be better than I was the day before -- spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Tomorrow is a new day.
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Program Profile

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  • Peace Neighborhood Center
    Peace Neighborhood Center's mission is to provide programs for children, families, and individuals who are affected by social and economic problems. Peace helps people discover their options, enhance their skills, and make choices that lead to ...


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