Nearly five years ago, when Jamail Aikens was hired as director, Saline Area Social Service was in a perilous position as it approached its 50th anniversary.
The agency, which supports Saline’s poor with a food bank and other services, had lost its major source of funding and it was located in a cramped space hidden in the back of a building in downtown Saline.
Bill Natsis, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church and president of the board at SASS, remembers the impression Aikens made during his job interview.
“We were in trouble. We’d lost a lot of our funding. United Way had provided us with some individuals to help us move forward. We were impressed with Jamail and what he said he could do for us. The guys from United Way said he was ‘too good to be true.’ They thought he was offering to do a full-time job for half-time cost,” Natsis said. “It turned out he did everything he said he would do and more. He was a god send.”
Aikens and his wife, Dianna, are leaving Saline for Florida. Aikens leaves having revived the 54-year-old human services agency and finding it a new prominent and permanent home.
Aikens grew up in poverty in Detroit. He used the mentoring he found in church to escape poverty and get an education. He came to Saline when he married long-time Saline High School teacher Dianna Lauchu and began working as administrator at Linden Square. When the long-time director Don Dersnah retired from Saline Area Social Service, Aikens decided to apply. He knew the outlook for the agency was bleak. United Way had changed its funding model and it cost Saline Area Social Service its main source of operational revenue. But Aikens was called to the work with the poor.
“It’s probably my personal story. I grew up in poverty. I was on social assistance. My mom struggled with drugs until I was 13,” Aikens said. “I’ve been poor and I’ve been without food. I know the importance of support and assistance.”
From his wife, a lifelong Saline resident, and from his two years working in the community at Linden Square, Aikens also knew this community could do more to support SASS.
“I knew that if we could tell the story, the community would respond,” Aikens said.
Aikens, who had a background in communications and marketing, gained the assistance of several key volunteers. With the help of volunteer Anne Cummings, who helped with marketing, Design Hub, which provided design services, and Aero Corporation, which provided mailing services, Aikens launched a comprehensive and systematic information and awareness campaign.
“With all that support, we basically had an entire marketing team behind us,” Aikens said.
Their first marketing piece went out to 11,000 homes in the Saline Area Schools district. The response was exactly what Aikens hoped for. Today, Aikens and his team continue to sustain the agency with their marketing efforts and the resulting financial contributions.
“Financially, we’re as strong as we’ve been in the 15 years I’ve been involved,” Natsis said.
The agency’s financial footing quickly stabilized. Another key piece of the turnaround was the agency’s new home at the corner of Mills Street and Michigan Avenue. For years, the agency had been located in a small office in Merchant Plaza in downtown Saline. St. Joseph Mercy Hospital offered to donate the building to Saline Area Social Service. But that was just the start. Volunteers renovated and painted the home. Roofman donated a new roof. The agency opened at its new home in May of 2016.
It was an important development.
“It improved our visibility in the community. And it made us more accessible to people who needed to find us,” Aikens said. “It was also an important statement about this organization’s long-term commitment to the community.”
An agency that had spent years hidden in a small office was now standing prominently on Saline’s main thoroughfare. Between the new home and the marketing campaign, Saline Area Social Service was impossible to ignore.
“We used to say we were the best kept secret in Saline. But we’re much more well known today. People are aware of who we are and what we do. They know where are,” Natsis said.
Every week, local groups collect food or other goods for Saline Area Social Service. And the agency lets the community know with an email newsletter and posts on social media.
Aikens leaves SASS in much better condition than he found it. But rather than speak of his accomplishments, he cherishes the experience.
“It was a blessing. I was glad to have the opportunity to lead. But it’s the people in the community that support Saline Area Social Service. All I do is communicate stories and give people opportunity to respond and connect people who need help with the help that’s available,” Aikens said.
But, according to Natsis, Aikens is far too modest.
“He basically saved us. I don’t know if anyone else could have done that. He was the perfect man at the perfect time,” Natsis said. “We are sorry to see him go. But I think he’s set us up very well for the future.”
Aikens is taking a job with New Horizons in southwest Florida. He’ll be tutoring and mentoring with an agency that works with 600 kids. He’ll also help with marketing, fundraising and volunteer development. His wife, Dianna, may also work as a teacher.
Anne Cummings is Aikens’ successor. Both Natsis and Aikens are confident in her ability to maintain and grow the agency’s momentum.
“She’s been with us for a long time and was one of the key people to help us with the turnaround,” Aikens said. “She has a good sense of what needs to happen and she knows the staff and the community.”
Natsis has known four directors of the agency. Cummings will be the first who comes in with experience working with SASS.
Despite an economy which shows red hot raw data – whether it’s the stock market index or the unemployment rate – Saline Area Social Service serves 350 people each week. As Aikens plans his departure, he knows the need will remain.
“It’s important the community recognize there are struggling people all around us. It could be the person who serves your food, who hands you your coffee, who bags your groceries. People all around us are struggling to get by,” Aikens said. “We should remember how we treat people. And we should also remember to support the agencies that serve the poor.”
To donate to Saline Area Social Service, click here.