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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


You want to play in the youth football program at Journey House? First, write a book report and show that you have a library card.

It's just one of the ways that the south side community organization aims to get kids on paths to success in school and beyond.

And it's just one small piece of a picture in which nonprofit organizations in Milwaukee have increased their efforts to do more for children in the Milwaukee area, particularly low-income and minority children.

This column deals often with education issues that are on the heavy, even gloomy, side. But with Thanksgiving at hand, I want to give some thanks. A few months ago, a friend asked me if anything good had been launched for children in Milwaukee in the last 10 or 20 years. I said yes and named a couple good examples (the Urban Ecology Center and the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center), and I wrote columns describing them.

But there are many other organizations and efforts that deserve applause. Over time, I want to continue to spotlight them.

So today, three examples, each an organization with a long history and fresh commitments to young people. They have three different core identities: a youth center; a nature center; and a music conservatory.

Journey House

Journey House is about to turn 50 years old, but its current boom dates to 2012. That's when it moved into a new facility attached to Longfellow School, an MPS school on the near south side. Led by CEO Michele Bria, Journey House has expanded its impact, with a vibrant set of programs for kids, ranging from academics to theater to sports, and programs for adults, including help getting jobs. It has a strong connection to Longfellow but serves kids from several dozen schools.

In 2013, the Green Bay Packers offered Journey House the used artificial turf from one of the team's practice fields. The result: a gorgeous football field (complete with the Packers logo) in Mitchell Park and a football program for kids 14 and under that attracted about 100 players in the season just ended.

But Charles Brown, the coach and deputy director of Journey House, says kids can't play without making a commitment to success in education. He lists six pillars of the sports programs: education; building character and life skills; good nutrition practices; good appearance; active parent engagement; and, intentionally last on the list, winning.

Journey House also has an excellent gym for basketball and other sports and it is developing a set of baseball diamonds and facilities in Baran Park, a couple miles away, for its youth baseball program.

Bria says the overall goals are to expose young people to new experiences and to people who can help them get on paths to good careers, as well as to strengthen families and the surrounding community. As she puts it, the organization wants to help kids become "major league people, not necessarily major league players."

Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

Located along Lake Michigan in the northeast corner of Milwaukee County, the beautiful 185-acre property has a long history and has been a nature preserve and environmental education center since the 1970s. In the last several years, Schlitz Audubon has expanded its connection to schools, particularly ones serving low-income students in Milwaukee. It brings kids to the center and sends staff members to do programs at the schools.

Helen Boomsma, executive director, said the center serves about 20,000 students a year and, supported by philanthropic gifts, 4,800 of them are from schools serving low income students. Two years ago, that number was 2,600.

Boomsma cites studies that say that the more kids get to know the outdoor environment, the better they do in school overall. She said the center aims to involve kids from schools in at least six to nine environmental programs a year. Its school partners range from early childhood centers to high schools.

"You really are seeing some of these kids in nature for the first time," Boomsma said.

Wisconsin Conservatory of Music

The conservatory has roots that are more than a century old. Based in a mansion on North Prospect Avenue, it has long-served accomplished and aspiring musicians, both adults and kids. For decades, it served mostly, shall we say, the establishment. But it has moved strongly in the last several years toward serving more low-income and minority children.

"There is a definite need for music education in our community," said Eric Tillich, the president and CEO. He said the conservatory has taken on the mission of being "a true community music school."

In 2014-'15, its main program for schools served about 1,300 students. This year, it is serving about 15,000 in 70 schools in Milwaukee and, for the first time, in Racine. Over 80% of the students involved are African-American or Hispanic. The program is tailored to each school, with the emphasis on educating children on fundamentals of how music is made.

The conservatory has also expanded its scholarships for private lessons for students who have the potential to do well. Tillich said that this year it is providing $200,000 worth of scholarships for 40 low-income students.

There are many more good people and good organizations adding to the lives of Milwaukee children. Consider these three representatives of a bigger picture.

We've got a lot of problems in the Milwaukee area and a big need to see kids do better. But let's make this a time to look at the big picture and say thanks to people who get too little attention and credit for stepping up to building futures.

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at [email protected]


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November 18, 2018


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