Real Life: Quilen and Hannah Bonham Blackwell

Couple uses vacant Detroit lot to grow jobs and hope for the community.

Quilen and Hannah Bonham Blackwell are transforming vacant city lots into beautiful solar-power flower fields to create jobs, including partnering with local flower farmers to pilot a farm here in Detroit. Their big goal is to create a model that will work nationwide.

As they are changing young lives through the farms, flowers and jobs, they are raising their own kids, twins Josiah and Olive, 6, and Carver Jo, 4, to understand that there is nothing they can’t do to make their own difference in the world.

“It’s a really good example we think for our kids to see that here you have people with different backgrounds, income levels and experiences working in harmony to accomplish a larger goal that’s going to benefit everybody,” Quilen says.

They spent time one recent afternoon chatting about parenting.

How has your backgrounds inspired your parenting? 

Photo credit: Thomas Kubik

Hannah was raised in an Iowa Mennonite community where service plays a huge role. “We always knew we wanted kids and we knew that we wanted to bring them in to be a part of our work and to grow up in it, to really also understand what it looks like to serve and what it looks like to live a life that’s all about uplifting other people,” she says.

“It’s one thing to teach your kids that, it’s another thing to show them that and to be doing it as a family. So I feel like having the kids watch and participate is a huge part of our parenting journey. And hopefully, we can contribute some amazing future leaders to the world.”

Quilen grew up in an upper-middle-class Wisconsin family and started volunteering at a community center serving Southeast Asian refugees in middle school. “For me, that’s really my first time realizing there’s a world beyond myself out there and really seeing that not everyone had the same opportunities that I was having as a kid. So that’s definitely something I want to instill in my children, this ideal that there are many people out there who are less fortunate than you and you have a responsibility to use the privileges and blessings that you have as children and that they’re going to have as adults to make the world a better place.”

What are some of the parenting lessons you didn’t expect to learn? 

Quilen, who hadn’t changed a diaper until the twins were born, says even before they had kids, he loved picking other parents’ brains about the experiences. As far as lessons go, he says he’s learned kids just want to be loved and to be a top priority.

“I guess it’s not as hard as I thought it would be in the sense that really, as long as I’m committed and I’m doing my best and I’m really putting their needs above my own, things seem to work out.”

Hannah says she’s learned to prioritize what matters while extending grace to herself and other parents. She says she also loves that parents get to define what’s normal for their kids.

“A couple of nights ago, we told the kids, ‘Do you know that people think we live in a dangerous neighborhood?’ They were just kind of dumbfounded. But what’s normal for them is our neighborhood.” She says she wants them to know not everyone grows up with a white picket fence. “A message to parents is, you get to define what’s normal to your kids. So think intentionally about that and about what you can introduce to them that they’ll take with them throughout their adult life.”

Fast Talk 

Photo credit: Thomas Kubik

Your personal tagline:

Hannah: “We’re blessed to be a blessing.”

Quilen: “You get what you get and you won’t throw a fit.”

Your secret obsession: 

Quilen: “Searching for used cars. I love buying used cars.”
Hannah:  Thrifting. “I love a good thrift store dig.”

Best flower to say I love you:

Quilen: Peonies

Hannah: The double tulip

Best relationship tip: 

Hannah: Have a common mission. “I think if you have a common mission that is your life mission and it matches the other person’s life mission, that’s going to help your parenting, it’s going to help just you be cohesive as a family unit, your marriage and it’s really going to stand the test of time.”
Quilen: Preparation. “I spent a good 10 years preparing for marriage. So I really look at the fruits of what we have today because of the hard work we put in and I put in the beginning before I even met Hannah.”

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