SSNC Helps Milwaukee Youth Succeed by Nyesha Stone
Alderman Cavalier Johnson of District 2 went knocking on over 10,000 doors to get elected in 2016. He knew he wanted to work in government since the age of 14 once he got involved with the YMCA.
Ald. Johnson was a part of YMCA’s Sponsor-a-Scholar program, which has now been taken now taken over by the Boys & Girls Club. This program is meant to help low-income students go to college. Through the program, Ald. Johnson gained resources, mentorship and participated in community work.
It was the day of 9/11, his freshman year of high school, when Ald. Johnson saw President George W. Bush go to New York to comfort and be there for the residents during such a tragic time. It was at that moment that Ald. Johnson knew he wanted to make a difference.
“I love doing this service with the Y,” said Ald. Johnson. “I could join the government where I could help people every day.”
After graduating from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2009 with a degree in Political Science, Johnson was immediately hired on to work for what is now called Employ Milwaukee. Eight years later and Ald. Johnson is still helping people by being an “accessible responsive alderman.”
Even after being in office for a year, he still goes knocking on doors twice a week. And since he grew up in the second district, he knows the needs of the community, yet he still likes to hear from the residents one on one.
Each district needs resources, which is why Ald. Johnson is grateful to have the Sliver Spring Neighborhood Center (SSNC) in his district. He believes SSNC means to the youth of the 53218 area, what the Y meant to him in his adolescent days.
“When you travel north and west in this city, too often resources for the kids dry up,” he said, and SSNC is one of those gems in the city that not only the youth need, but the city as well.
SSNC was established in 1958 with the mission to create a safer and better community for all residents of Milwaukee, specifically for the zip code 53218. Located at 5460 N 64th St. for 55 years, and counting, the center has resided in Westlawn— which was Wisconsin’s largest low-income public housing development. The center has built a solid relationship with the families of Westlawn, up until redevelopment began back in 2010.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded the City of Milwaukee and Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM) a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation (CNI) grant to transform Westlawn into a quality place of living, according to HACM’s website. Public and private partners have committed over $250 million in additional resources to support CNI’s transformation plan.
In Phase I, 250 apartments were built on the east side of Westlawn in 2012, and now with Phase II, the additional 708 apartments and townhouses should be completed by 2020, according to CNI Coordinator Paul Williams.
“CNI supports a partnership that is working to strengthen schools in the area, to improve and expand retail options, to enhance underutilized public spaces,” said Williams. “And to provide case management that can help Westlawn residents improve their quality of life and move towards self-sufficiency.”
SSNC’s in the heart of Westlawn, which is now known as Westlawn Gardens, and when half of the housing development, equaling 75 acres, was rebuilt, the residents were relocated causing new residents to move in, and with new residents came a new issue: a lost connection between SSNC and the Westlawn Garden residents, according to SSNC Development Director Devin Hudson.
The $82 million redevelopment created an invisible residential divide separating the newly constructed area from the old, she said. Hudson believes some of the issues are that the new residents don’t know about the center, so they don’t send their children there, and there’s also a perception that the center isn’t safe because of the zip code it resides in.
“At that point, a relationship with the new residents never forged and we never had an idea of their needs,” said Hudson. “We cut back on some programs as well.”
Hudson has no hard data to prove this and she’s not sure what steps the center will take to solve the issue.
SSNC Executive Director Tom Ellis believes the center is doing all that it can to improve the community.
“A little agency like this has to focus on what we can do,” said Ellis. “We cannot ignore people who live in neighborhoods like this.”
According to SSNC’s 2015-2016 annual report, the cost of programs and operating expenses only takes up 12.2% of the center’s expenses, while salaries and benefits is more than half the expenses reaching 51.8%. Most workers at SSNC aren’t in it for the pay, but it’s always a plus. But the best part of their jobs is impacting the community.
In total, the center’s expenses are $2,978,208, and this is used to mainly help better the 53218 community.
Ellis understands the center can’t help everyone but he believes this is the most meaningful job he’s had. He’s been with the center for one year a half after being retired for five years. He was the president of M&I Bank and with that power came money. Once retired, Ellis wanted to spend his time doing something changing the community instead of just spending money.
“I would like a city where everyone has an opportunity to contribute regardless what zip code you’re born into,” said Ellis.
And, even if Hudson’s assumption about the lost connection is correct, families may have relocated, but teenagers who’ve grown up at the center still attend.
The center has 10 programs/initiatives that are designed to improve the Milwaukee residents’ lives: Elaine Schreiber, Community Learning Centers, Spartan Sports, Adult Education, Employment, Family, UWM Silver Spring Community Nursing Center, Emergency Services Community Connections, and the teen program, which keeps bringing the teens back to the center, and out of trouble.
Five-month SSNC youth member Lyaric Washington says the center has changed her attitude, improved her grades in school and made her feel wanted.
Washington labeled herself as, “loud and ghetto” until she started attending the center. Her friends at school told Washington they were going to SSNC after school, so she tagged along and said it was surprisingly fun. Plus, she could knock out community service hours by helping out at the center, which her school Carmen High School of Science and Technology requires from all of its students.
She’s the Vice President of SSNC’s teen group, which is a group that provides inner-city youth with resources and opportunities. Some of Washington’s duties are to work closely with SSNC’s L.A.D.Y Coordinator Latasha Holt. She helps Holt plan field trips, run errands and basically whatever Holt needs.
That’s the real reason Washington gained an interest in the center: Holt. She saw the connection Holt had with the youth and she wanted to be a part of that.
“I like how we all come together,” said Washington. “We can all be ourselves around each other.”
Ald. Johnson says one of his favorite aspects of the center is their mentorship, which is clearly shown through Holt’s work.
She’s been with the center for six months after being a supervisor at a daycare. Holt wanted a career change and she saw the position was open, so she went for it. Holt the center back in 1999 and now she’s the one impacting lives. As the L.A.D.Y Coordinator, Holt works with teen girls from ages 13 to 19. One of her duties is to plan different social development programs to better the youth before, during and after high school.
“I plan some of the youth events such as college tours, holiday parties and so much more. I work with juveniles that are under court order to get community service hours,” said Holt. “But most importantly, I allow the teens to come to SSNC to be in a safe environment where he/she can be happy and comfortable.”
In the teen programming, which Washington is a part of, 94% of the youth attending the center have improved their grades, there are zero teen pregnancies and felony convictions among the center’s youth in their social development programs, and 91% of the youth have changed their set of friends to ones who don’t use drugs, according to their annual report.
Washington isn’t the only youth benefitting from the center’s presence.
Dekayla Morris is 14, just like Washington, and she’s been attending the center since Aug. 27th of this year.
She came for fun but then she found herself wanting to come back every day after school, so she did. Morris is the secretary of the teen group where she helps run the discussion groups the center has with teens from the community. They’ve talked about sex education and have had food etiquette classes to better the lives of the teens.
“I love helping out especially with Ms. Tasha,” said Morris.
Morris’s mother has been in jail since Feb., and since Holt has entered into her life, she’s able to cope with the situation. Holt is known for going the extra mile to make sure her kids have the resources they need, and a little extra. She’s recently came back from Chicago from taking the girls on a camping trip.
If Holt was to leave the center that would negatively impact the girls.
“I would come [to the center], but not for long,” said Morris.
Morris has been playing volleyball since 7th grade and dancing since around the ages three or four, and every day she comes to the center after school until around 4: 30 p.m. when it’s time to head off to dance practice.
When the center offered Morris the secretary job she felt welcomed, important and useful, and without the center she’d be chilling at home instead of being productive.
Just like Holt said, the center tries to give the youth something to do that will impact their lives in a meaningful way, and through their annual report, the youth their improving and the impact they have on the community the center seems to be doing its job.
Not only is the center providing the youth with mentorship and field trips, but they’ve recently installed a professional basketball court for the youth with a partnership with The Milwaukee Bucks and Johnson Controls. The $150,000 multi-sport complex has been opened since Sept. 7th of this year. The project was announced in May and only took a few months to bring to life, according to Urban Milwaukee.
SSNC’s teen program has been keeping the youth off the streets since its opening, and according to Ellis they plan on improving their current programs not creating more.
“The most important thing is that the youth can come here and spend time with role models,” said Ellis.