Among the polka dot houses and trash sculptures of Detroit’s famed Heidelberg Project, you’ll often spot Stephen Snead priming a wall or shoveling snow from a painted sidewalk. Snead, 42, is a native Detroiter and has lived near the project for almost his entire life. But almost six years ago, a series of unrelated tragedies changed Snead’s life.
“2004 was actually a horrific year for me,” Snead described. “On February the 21st, my nephew got married and the same day he got married, my house caught fire. In April, another one of my nephews was shot and killed. In July, I lost my mother. And then later on that year, the week before Thanksgiving, the job that I was working at for 13 years decided to close their doors. It’s been hard ever since.”
Nothing in Snead’s story is so uncommon. A couch sitting too close to a radiator, an act of random violence and one job of millions lost as the great Motor City continues its slow degeneration. Snead struggled to find work as his experience at a laundry that washed the uniforms of car assembly workers and the napkins from their canteens had no value when the manufacturing plants and restaurants shut down. He borrowed space in the upper level of an old friend’s duplex, down the street from his old family home, filed for a few months of unemployment and searched for a way to make ends meet. It was hard — each blow darkened his spirit a bit more.
More uncommon was what Snead didn’t do next. He didn’t mope. He didn’t move away from the community his father was born in, that he loved, in search of a job that would take him far from his close circle of family and neighbors. He didn’t stop taking his youngest of three daughters to school every day or picking her up so he could help her with her homework in the evenings. Snead responded to these combined tragedies with thoughtfulness and innovation, and turned to his community to find ways to use his time that would help others.