Ask Flint residents what they love about their city, and most will quickly give the same answer: The people – their toughness and determination and caring toward each other. Together, the people of Flint are pressing forward and building a brighter, more hopeful future in the wake of the water crisis. So many individuals and organizations have stepped up to help. The Morris Peterson Jr. Foundation is among them.
“Handing out bottled water and filtered water pitchers wasn’t one of our original initiatives, but once we heard about it, we partnered with the United Way to get them out,” says Tonda Peterson-Bryant, executive director of the Morris Peterson Jr. Foundation, a Flint organization that adapted its programming to respond to the water crisis.
The foundation is named for Peterson-Bryant’s brother, a retired NBA player and Flint native. Its programs largely serve youth and their families through free basketball camps and the provision of food, school
supplies and free low-cost dental care. It also holds an annual Thanksgiving event, providing about 100 families with a full Thanksgiving meal, pantry starter items and health screenings, in partnership with St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, the United Way of Genessee County and and the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan.
Since the water crisis began, the foundation has tried to incorporate water into every event it holds, even it just means passing out bottled water. But its primary efforts have been centered around distributing hundreds of filtered-water pitchers and raising money from charity basketball games to install water filters at two local institutions: St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church and the Berston Field House.
Berston, a 95-year-old recreational facility in the heart of north Flint, serves as a community center, especially for the city’s youth, and a home base for five nonprofit organizations. Peterson- Bryant says the foundation partnered with Berston to install a water filter there in late 2016 because “filtered water pitchers help, but they’re a Band-Aid. We thought, what can we do on a larger scale? We wanted to try to maximize what we can do.”
Bryant Nolden, Berston’s executive director, says the partnership made sense on many levels.
“At the height of the water crisis, we were receiving a lot of water to distribute because of all the folks that
come to our space,” he says. “We had a conversation with Tonda around putting in a water filtration system. Morris played here, he has fond memories of the field house. Berston is known for its basketball. It’s like the proving ground for the community – if you think you have a good game, you have to come play here.”
The Morris Peterson Jr. Foundation installed two filtration units due to the field house’s size.
“It’s worked wonderfully; this water filtration system they provided for Berston really changed the dynamics of the center,” Nolden says. “By us having this, we can let folks know we have clean water here. It’s really been remarkable in changing the perceptions of folks; people will actually go to the water foundation and drink the water. It was extremely caring and nice of the foundation to even consider Berston, but I know both Morris and Tonda have very fond memories here.”
Up to 150 kids participate daily in programs at Berston during the school year, including activities like the bike club and the new Success Center, which offers a homework room each day at 3:30. (During school hours, the Success Center helps adults study for their GED, prepare resumes and hunt for jobs.) During the summer, the field house offers a free drop-in summer playground program on weekdays.
Peterson-Bryant says being able to install the water filtration system in the field house and St. Mark’s has allowed her and her family to contribute meaningfully to Flint’s recovery and let the residents know someone is looking out for them.
“We were born and raised here – both my parents and my brother and me,” Peterson-Bryant says. “Our parents were teachers. When we were growing up, it was automotive world, there were jobs and people were close. That’s our memory of it. To see where it is now is sad. So we just want to do whatever we can. We’re trying to let people know that, you know, somebody is here.”