FLINT, Michigan—Megan Heyza’s Saturday began at 8 a.m. and won’t end until 1 a.m. At age 25, this mom and waitress is also a tireless community volunteer, helping to transform the face of 53 homes on Flint’s eastside through her Porch Project initiative.
She’s a native of the Davison area, but has chosen to make Flint her home. She became an emancipated minor at the age of 16 and moved around from Montrose, Birch Run, Lapeer, and Flint Township before settling in Flint at the age 17, sometimes homeless and always determined.
“I’m a really out of the box thinker,” said Heyza. "If you tell me something (is) on a dotted line, I’m going to look above it and below it.” Heyza began a new journey in 2016 — 22 and pregnant she set her sights on homeownership and discovered a drive for community development.
“I redid my own porch. I pulled out all the old bushes. I planted flowers. I painted the porch. And people started talking to me outside. Like none of my neighbors had ever spoken to me before.”
Heyza soon realized the great impact inherent in such simple acts and The Porch Project was born.
Heyza says through doing her own porch she was able to tap into the brain trust within her own neighborhood — bringing on people who knew how to power wash and fix railings. In 2017, it started with six porch repairs and by 2018 Heyza had formed partnership with UM-Flint, extending her reach and impact to at least 37 eastside homes.
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Porch meetings with residents is her signature form of community engagement. She doesn’t knock on doors. She finds the approach intrusive and annoying, rather she takes leisurely walks and allows conversation to blossom along the way.
"I wanted to make sure I was visible to the people around me and wanted to make sure people knew my face. If I see someone outside, I say hello. If they try to engage in conversation, I would keep talking to them, from there I’m able to build relationships,” said Heyza, who works full-time as a waitress at 501 Bar and Grill in downtown Flint and stays especially busy with her son, Zander, now 2.
She finds because of her unconventional beginnings, she’s able to relate to people from many walks of life. It has allowed her to be empathetic, humble, and able to reach people in seemingly unreachable environments.
“My childhood and certain points after that wasn’t easy, but I went through that for a very specific reason. I can understand people in a way a lot of people will never be able to do. That’s a privilege, I think.”
Heyza plans to continue her project but wants to replicate it on a national stage so that the porches alone aren’t what create the community, but the resident stories that are told there. It's all part of building the sort of neighborly trust that looks like going next door and asking for a cup of sugar, said Heyza.
Until then, Heyza remains busy. She has gotten a hundred calls from people looking for help with repairs, she is developing fundraisers with area businesses, and preparations are underway now for two Porch Project Service Days.
Heyza says although the repairs are the most visible impact, her initiative was never really just about the home repairs.
"Everybody thinks that like the whole concept behind the Porch Project is to do repairs and plant flowers,” said Heyza. “I don’t care about the porch repairs and the flowers, even though they’re needed. I care about engaging the resident in the house and that’s kind of what I want people to take away from The Porch Project.”
Porch Project Service Days are planned for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 13 and May 4, starting at Educare Flint. Through a partnership with Kettering University and the Genesee County Land Bank, volunteers and residents will be doing porch repairs in the Durant-Tuuri-Mott neighborhood. Flint Firefighters Union 352 is leading those volunteer efforts.
For more information, check out The Porch Project on Facebook
or call (810) 228-9673.