Alyssa Atkinson

Alyssa Atkinson

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Story by David Wesley
Photos by Bernie Lamframboise

It’s 2002, and Alyssa Atkinson and I are freshmen at Ferndale High School in the same first-hour class – German. During the first few nervous weeks of high school we begin making silly small talk together. Sitting together, we quickly dins out our similar backgrounds.

“You know you’re poor then there’s furniture on your porch and in your yard.”

“Oh, yeah! I see that all over!”

We pointed out many amusing similarities about our family’s financial status then, and for the first two years of high school we always shared laughable exchanges. But gradually we faded from each other’s lives with the abrasive shuffling that pulls people in their own directions.

Flash-forward ten years after our 2006 graduation, and the opportunity arises for me to interview a girl named Alyssa Atkinson who had become a serious philanthropic presence inside the city of Ferndale today. I make contact and not only discover a distant and memorable acquaintance, but also find how much has changed for us socially, financially and emotionally. Our hearts are still anchored in Ferndale but how we go about showing our affection for the people and the city is mutually exclusive. She’s neck-deep in a handful of fundraising, volunteer and social activities that has helped bring Ferndale to the warm, bustling place it’s at today. As for myself, a journalist and author based in the city, I wear a plastered smirk over a brimming heart when we catch up again after all these years. My work is important to me, but Alyssa’s has affected the citizens, the city’s economy, the culture and much more. I’m riveted to find out her story behind the swirling praise that buzzes around her today.

D.W What sort of volunteer experience do you have in Ferndale? How has it affected you and the city?

A.A. I am currently in my third year as the fundraising chair for Ferndale Pride, the LGBTQA street festival that brings around 15,000 people to the city each year.

I am also in my third year as the board secretary for Ferndale Youth Assistance. On this board I co-chair the Bowl-A-Thon committee and the camps committee. I also was the volunteer coordinator for the BBQ Ribs Burnout Tent twice, when it was a part of the Blues Festival fundraiser. I still am an active volunteer with Bluesfest each year, often “passing the pig” at multiple venues a night. Lastly, I volunteer at multiple different Michigan AIDS Coalition events, a Ferndale based non-profit.

It has affected me in the sense that it has been the greatest way I have ever found to help overcome my severe social anxiety and depression. I often have a hard time being in large groups or speaking with people I don’t know, but when it is for a greater good I find I am able to really come out of my shell and can even be really good at it. Being a part of something so much bigger than myself has helped me to get out of my own head. I would highly recommend it.

It may be hard to quantify how it has helped the city but I will try my best. In 2014-2015 I raised over $7,000 for Ferndale Pride (final numbers are of course not in for this year yet). This money is used to keep the festival free to all, and the money remaining after expenses goes to five charities: The Ferndale Community Foundation, Affirmations, Transgender Michigan, Michigan AIDS Coalition, and Ferncare.

With FYA, I have assisted in raising money that provides camp and skill-building scholarships for students and families in the district. These range from sending students to summer camps, specialty camps, and day camps they may not be able to otherwise afford to attend to hosting workshops for families about things like bullying, healthy communication, and even free legal-aid clinics.

Side story: My mom had a really bad childhood, and I will always remember her telling me about how when he could go away to camp in the summer that was the best time of her childhood life. It was the only time she ever felt like she could be a kid and have fun. I definitely think this is why FYA’s camps program is so important to me. It’s hard to really explain that feeling with facts or figures, but I think that unfortunately there are still some children who that is true for and if we can help them have the experience my mother did, well then I just think that is one of the greatest things you can do.)
D.W. With so much change occurring in the city since you graduated, how do you feel it has happened and how can we continue to make Ferndale grow?
A.A. This one is tough for me to answer because I feel part of my answer will be unpopular, but I want to be honest. When I was a kid I loved this city. Growing up here with only my mother I had this feeling like the city was my family, like it played a huge role in how I grew up, and I will forever be grateful for that. When I got ff-jj-aa-vfolder and went away to college sometimes people would ask if it was hard having two moms (my parents are lesbians) and I would always respond with, “No, I grew up in Ferndale.” However, in a very selfish way, part of what I loved about this city was that it felt like a secret. Like, nobody from outside Ferndale really knew how amazing and “cool” and special it was. Now everyone and their mother knows … And while I am truly happy for its success and thoroughly enjoy most of the new additions, I can’t help but miss the hole-in-the-wall restaurants that were kind of dirty but made the absolute best food. And being able to find a parking spot in two minutes on a Saturday night. I feel it happened because this city is the best city there is and we couldn’t keep that to ourselves forever.

My only idea for future growth is that I would love to see more office-type businesses and retail. And of course, more parking! I look forward to seeing growth continue West down 9 Mile towards Pinecrest and think a lot of those ideas could be realized in that. I think the restaurants could benefit from a lunch crowd and I would love to have a more diverse mix of businesses to spend my money at. I really miss places like Dragonfly and House of Chants.

D.W. Why do you think you won the Good Neighbor Award and how has it affected you inside the city?
A.A. According to my presenter, Councilman Dan Martin, I was nominated by multiple people. I believe it was for my work with Pride, Youth Assistance, and the Michigan AIDS Coalition. He gave a wonderful introduction where he stated that the word “vulnerability” had been used by more than one of my nominators to describe me. At first I winced at this description, but he went on to explain it as a strength and as an indicator of how I am always willing to put myself out there. At the event I spoke very briefly and said that for the sake of my “vulnerable” description I wanted to share that I had struggled with anxiety and depression and had found this to be a really positive outlet for working through those things.

Several people came up after the event and thanked me for sharing, so those responses were really heart-warming and encouraging — that was definitely the biggest way it affected me. That and, of course, I felt a great sense of pride. I love this city so much, so to be recognized for just doing something I love was really an amazing feeling.

D.W. What are your future plans for yourself and the city of Ferndale?
A.A. I hope at the end of this month to become the board president for Ferndale Youth Assistance. We have an amazing board with really wonderful ideas and recently were given very generous support by Jack and Annette Aronson. I am so excited to help develop new programs and expand old favorites in the years to come.

I also hope to increase our visibility within the community. Once Pride is over, I’m looking forward to relaxing a little and enjoying the summer, although I did just join the Green Cruise planning committee.

I have always dreamed of one day helping Ferndale in the most effective way and possibly being a member of the City Council, but with the recent boom in home values I fear that may not be an option. At first I felt saddened that I could no longer afford to live in my home town, but I feel more optimistic about it lately. There are a lot of wonderful neighborhoods that need a lot of help and perhaps that is where the next leg of my life will take me. I have a deep love for this city, but really, at the end of the day, I just want to help make the world a better place. Maybe that is cheesie, but I really like helping people. I have a big heart and I used to think that was a bad thing, but now I think it is my best quality. I feel content to go wherever I am needed or wherever I can help.

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