The secret to surviving a financial apocalypse? Community trust

Jason Lee is no stranger to the ups and downs of financial instability. In Detroit—a city left financially and physically vacant following the 2008 economic downturn—it’s impossible for Lee to be anything but.

“I became director right before the economy changed, so I got to experience it all first-hand,” says Lee, who runs the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP).  “It wasn’t easy. People sometimes forget that nonprofits are businesses, too.”

Nonetheless, DAPCEP—a local mainstay offering free pre-college science and mathematics programs to minority youth—has seemed to rise above the bankrupt-triggering recession. From summer computer camps getting prospective college students up to speed on cutting-edge technology to basic pre-engineering classes for Kindergarteners and their parents, DAPCEP’s breadth of classes rope in a wide reach of support.

DAPCEP students having

Students learning about molecules in DAPCEP classroom

Its secret? Community trust.

Now at 37 years old, DAPCEP has successfully led students from the first day of elementary school to the first day of college. Growing from a small idea to a family name over the decades, the program has now reached a point where its community is returning the effort.

From public schools and local universities regularly encouraging parents to enroll their kids in DAPCEP to second-generation DAPCEP graduates donating money and time to keep the program on its feet, Lee says he’s has seen an uptick in local support since the city hit financial bottom.

“A lot of credit goes to schools and universities when it comes to encouraging people to get involved in the program,” says Lee. “They see students interested in becoming doctors or scientists in the classroom and can send them directly to us.”

Local and national grants, issued through a variety of foundations, have also kept DAPCEP above water over the years.

But this support didn’t come without work. The program’s pre-recession roots in the community certainly added to its neighbors’ backing.

DAPCEP offered its first classes 37 years ago with a small population of 245 middle school and high school-aged students (now, Lee says, they’ve had up to 10,000 at a time) with the simple goal of breaking outdated career stereotypes. At the time, it was uncommon to see students of African-American, Hispanic, or Native-American heritage choose a career path in science, engineering and other technical fields. DAPCEP wanted to change that.

Now, based on a 2010 survey, 94 percent of all students enrolled in DAPCEP plan to attend college and pursue a technical degree. Additionally, more than 90 percent of Detroit Public School entries in the 2011 Metropolitan Detroit Science Fair originated in DAPCEP classrooms.

Soon, DAPCEP college graduates will likely return to the city to add to its regrowth. Lee himself went through a similar program as a child in Massachusetts, a move that, after leading him through graduate school to an engineering job at Ford Motors, inspired him to take the reins at DAPCEP.

The community has clearly recognized the impact.

For the first time in the program’s history, DAPCEP will be charging for its younger age bracket classes this summer. The price? $100, a steep jump from a long-time free program. But instead of grimacing at the change in policy, applicants’ parents appear eager to pitch in to DAPCEP’s grant-funded pot.

“Many parents were amazed that DAPCEP has survived so long without having to charge,” says Lee.

With the community-based support giving the program the boost to continue growing, Lee has fielded many requests from people across the country wanting insight on the program’s successful model. While he’s hesitant to expand DAPCEP itself to other metropolitan areas, Lee fully supports other programs starting up their own similar platform, as he’s seen such success in Detroit.

“We’ve been around long enough to engage a population that’s had parents and grandparents in DAPCEP,” says Lee. “And now we have their children telling them ‘Mommy, I want to be a scientist!’ on their own. It’s come full circle.”


Interested in learning more about the importance of community trust in sustaining a nonprofit? Talk to Jason Lee at

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