Perhaps State Rep. Gretchen Driskell best described the importance of the new home for Saline Area Social Service.
“This organization has been so fundamental to the success of our community for a long time but it was kind of hidden. And look at it now. It’s right out front. It’s fantastic,” said Driskell, speaking before a ribbon cutting at the grand opening of Saline Area Social Service’s new home at 224 W. Michigan Ave.
Saline Area Social Service celebrated the day with a lawn games, inflatable jumpers for the kids, ice cream from the Lion’s Club and pulled pork sandwiches from Saline Kiwanis. Volunteers from the Saline High School National Honor Society served donated sandwiches, burgers, pizza and fruit under tents and also helped kids find their way to the fun. Inside, SASS staff proudly took visitors on tours of their new home.
Saline Area Social Service started in 1961 when Marian Hering stored donated food her basement to provide Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets to those in need in the Saline community. For years it operated out of a small office tucked away in the back of Merchant Square in downtown Saline. Two years ago, when United Way changed the way it funded food banks in Washtenaw County, it appeared Saline Area Social Service might have to close its doors. The agency serves 350-400 local people with food and other services each week, so community leaders were concerned.
“I think back to about two years ago now when the leadership from Saline Area Social Service came to city hall to meet with us and it’s been a long journey. This group has come a long way,” Mayor Brian Marl said.
Bill Natsis, president of the agency’s board, smiled as he spoke of the turnaround. He credited United Way for helping the agency through the transition. But perhaps the most important development was finding Jamail Aikens to serve as executive director of SASS.
“I remember talking to our advisors from the United Way and telling them we found a director who was going to do this, that and the other thing, and that he was going to do it at a price we could afford. And they didn’t believe us,” Natsis said. “Jamail has been instrumental in getting us to where we are today.”
Aikens grew up in poverty in Detroit, so this mission of Saline Area Social Service is one that is personal to him.
“No question, this is something that is close to his heart. He understands the people using Saline Area Social Service and the struggles they face,” Natsis said.
Aikens’s voice quivered as he spoke to the crowd who gathered to join in the ribbon cutting celebration Saturday.
“I’m going to try not to get emotional but it’s pretty incredible what a group of people can do when they come together,” he said. “We’re going to be able to serve and feed and take care of about 350 people a week.”
The former home at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Mills Street was donated to Saline Area Social Service by St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. Aikens said that it was renovated by volunteers, often with donated equipment and supplies.
Today, there are offices on the second floor. There’s a food bank on the main floor and in the basement, with more room for storage in the garage. Aikens thanked all of the volunteers and donors who’ve supported the project. He also thanked the SASS board of directors.
Lastly, he thanked the staff, which includes Karen Mayne, Glenna Rehder and Dianne Hill.
“When people come to Saline Social Service, it’s not just a social service agency it’s a place where people care and feel loved. It’s because of these ladies right here,” Aikens said.
Mayor Marl commended the development.
It’s an amazing when a group of dedicated and talented individuals come together with a vision and have a commitment to making a really valuable community organization even stronger,” Marl said, calling for applause for Aikens and the SASS board. “I think it was Vice-President Hubert Humphrey who said we’ll ultimately all be judged, collectively, on how we treat the vulnerable and marginalized and those who need temporary assistance and help. This organization does amazing things. This is a wonderful facility and they should be very proud of it.”