Toni McIlwain runs programs for hard-hit community of Ravendale

Heart of Detroit: Once homeless, McIlwain became one of Detroit's most beloved neighborhood activists

DETROIT – More than 40 years ago, Toni McIlwain was homeless, having run away from an abusive violent husband.

"I ended up in this abandoned home with these four babies. I walked around the alley in the dumpster and thought maybe I could find them some food and wipe it off, and this big rat jumps out and this big rat looks at me like, 'Ah ha, I got the food before you got it,' and I am saying to myself that rat is smarter than I am and that is how I felt," said McIlwain. "So I dropped down to my knees, I said, 'Lord if you would just open up a door for me, just show me how to get there. I will give back the rest of my life."

And she has. After finding a job in a laundry, McIlwain put herself back to school and became one of Detroit's most beloved neighborhood activists, running programs to help others for more than 30 years, programs desperately needed in her hard-hit community of Ravendale.


"Eighty-five percent are at or below the poverty level, and all we want to do is give them an opportunity to move their lives forward," said McIlwain.

McIlwain helped hundreds of dropouts get back on an educational track, ran block programs and computer classes. She chased funding, calling herself a professional beggar. But recently, the funding dried up and her center closed.

"If you'd seen the tears of the people that said, 'Toni, you can't close up,' but I mean if you can't keep your lights on and you can't keep your gas on," said McIlwain.

"But that just became too difficult?" asked Mitch Albom.

"I just closed in December," said McIlwain.

The good news is a new building has been offered -- even bigger. And so at age 66...


"Are you going to be a professional beggar again?" asked Albom.

"I am going to be a professional beggar," said McIlwain.

"Are you doing it with us right now?" Albom asked.

"Yes, I am," said McIlwain, laughing.

Someone like McIlwain could have straightened out and never looked back. Instead, she never forgot her promise in that alley.

"I know they felt like I do that the rats are smarter than they are," said McIlwain. "I don't want anybody else to feel like that."

Giving over three decades of community service and looking to continue, McIlwain just needs a little help to keep pumping the heart of Detroit.

Heart of Detroit