Growing Effective Communities in Milwaukee Central City: An Interview with Tom Schneider, Executive Director of COA Youth and Family Centers

By Patricia Obletz, Editor

Slight of frame and quiet-spoken Attorney Thomas P. Schneider is a driving force at COA COA Youth and Family Centers. Atty. Schneider is the Executive Director at COA, a board member of United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee (UNCOM) and Safe & Sound, and he serves on the Campaign Cabinet of United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County. He also the created Milwaukee Weed & Seed program and co-founded the Milwaukee HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) and Safe & Sound (a community-wide crime prevention initiative).

His tenure as COA Executive Director began with an unexpected phone call in 2001 from a COA board member, Schneider said. Having served for 8 years as the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, and 21 years before that in the Milwaukee County DA’s Office, he had worked with youth serving agencies, knew the problems facing Milwaukee children and their families, and he accepted the opportunity to shepherd direct services to low income children and families.

Since then, the annual service population has increased from 2000 children and families at four locations to more than 10,000 children and families at 10 Milwaukee locations plus COA’s central Wisconsin 206 acre Camp Helen Brachman.

Late last year, COA was nominated for and won the Milwaukee Neighborhood Development Innovation Award (MANDI) for its outstanding outreach and revival of isolated neighborhoods and shamefully underserved children and families.

Schneider said that COA was conceived in the early 1900s by women in the Jewish community who wanted to help the many eastern European immigrants arriving in Milwaukee without knowing English, with minimal job skills, and living in cold water tenements. “These founding women didn’t have the right to vote, but they knew how to run things,” Schneider said. Only women were on the agency’s board of directors for the first 50 years, and only women served as president of COA for the first 75 years.

The founding women researched programs that helped families become self-sufficient and discovered Jane Adams Hull House Hull House in Chicago. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889.

The Milwaukee women adapted the Hull House model for their nondenominational agency, which in Milwaukee became The Settlement House. They offered hot water baths and showers, which brought people in, who then were encouraged to take job training, English language, and cooking classes.

Lizzie Black Kandor, president of The Settlement House, taught the cooking classes, collected the many diverse recipes, and turned them into “The Settlement House Cookbook,” Schneider said, adding that it became one of the best-selling cookbooks in the country. Those sales helped to maintain The Settlement House.

First Integrated Camp in Wisconsin

The same women created a second division to work with the children, who knew nothing about life beyond their tenements. And in 1906 the first eight children attended camp on the Milwaukee River in Thiensville (at what later became Boder’s Restaurant). It was named The Children’s Outing Association (COA) Fresh Air Camp. In 1929, the board purchased a larger 10 acre camp in the Waukesha area. And by the late ‘30s or early ‘40s, the camp became the first integrated camp in Wisconsin history.

By the 1940’s, the original Settlement House passed away, but the problems of the City didn’t go away. So ultimately the Children’s Outing Association became COA Youth & Family Centers and took on the full range of Settlement House programming - to help families become self-sufficient with a focus on family-centered programming. Today, COA focuses on these three major areas:

—Early Child Development. “Quality early childhood education,” Schneider said, “is the foundation on which future educational success is based. In 2012, there were only six nationally accredited early childhood education centers in Milwaukee, and inner city families couldn’t afford to attend most of them. But COA provided scholarships regardless of income at our Riverwest Early Childhood Education Center.” And because there was no quality early child education in the Amani neighborhood surrounding COA’s Goldin Center at 24th and Burleigh, COA just built and opened the new Burke Early Child Education Center. Early Child Development initiatives.

Family programming is at the heart of all of COA’s programs and COA offers free daily programming for parents and children – ages birth to years old – at its two Family Resource Centers Family Resource Centers. After visiting COA, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation offered funding to double the Riverwest center’s capacity, and to build a second family center. The monthly number of parents and children birth through five served at Riverwest grew from 600–800 a month to 1000–1200 a month. And COA opened up the new Ethel Nutis Gil Family Resource Center in the Amani neighborhood at the COA Goldin Center. Schneider noted that this past year COA’s Family Resource Centers had more than 15,000 participants in family programming.

COA also provides the internationally recognized HIPPY program Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY). Through COA’s Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program, COA’s Parent Partners meet parents weekly at the homes of children ages three to five years old. Parents receive the book of the week, a curriculum for each week for 30 weeks, and role-playing. Parents commit to spending at least 15 minutes with their child to complete every day’s reading and curriculum assignments. Schneider said that all national data suggest that adult/parent involvement in a child’s education is the single most important predictor of academic outcomes, and we see these results in our HIPPY graduates.

—Youth Development. Every weekday COA provides structured after school and summer programming for preteens and teens at its Riverwest, Goldin and Holton centers and also at 7 Milwaukee Public Schools citywide. Programming includes homework help, tutoring, visual and performing arts, sports, community service, driver education. And even the youth programs regularly engage parents/ caregivers as a key to strong outcomes. Pre-Teen and Teen Programs and Community Learning Centers.

And of course, just as it all started with camp 110 years ago, today Milwaukee children attend COA’s 206 acre Camp Helen Brachman in central Wisconsin during the summer as well as winter camp, youth leadership institutes, and family camps. Camp Helen Brachman

—Community Development. Community Development (Direct Services, including a full-service family health clinic, Partnerships, and Referral Networks for Amani, Riverwest and nearby neighborhoods). Engaging Residents and Building Neighborhood Assets: COA’s initial foray into community development began by transforming Kilbourn Park, adjacent to its Riverwest Center, from a crime-ridden litter-strewn area into a great new community green space. “We partnered with the City to cut back the crumbling bluffs, and doubled the size of the park and opened up a spectacular view of the city skyline from the park,” Schneider said.

An agreement with the City leased the Park to COA for a $1 a year – “but beware of free gifts,” Schneider interjected. To pay for mowing, snow plowing and trash removal, COA spent 18 months negotiating with the city for the naming rights for the new parkland. This success attracted a million dollar naming gift for the “Alice Bertschy Kadish Park”; and the endowment’s investment income pays for the ongoing maintenance of the park.

COA added a sports field and 120 community garden spaces. Family concerts brought 200 people per concert to the park the first year, 400 the next year, followed by 600. COA then built the Selig-Joseph-Folz Amphitheater in the park. And last summer saw 9,000 people attend performances of Shakespeare in the Park and the Skyline Music concerts. This great community green space helped sparked development of the entire area, Schneider said.

The next step occurred 3 years ago. While trying to keep up with the demand for child, youth and family services, COA received a call from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York City. Concern about child maltreatment and child wellbeing had led the Foundation to look for programs that could actually impact child well-being. And they also wanted programs that took a holistic approach to transforming the negative environments that foster child maltreatment into positive overall community transformation. Having selected programs to fund in Brooklyn, Boston and LA, they turned to the Midwest and heard about COA.

That’s where COA’s community development programming comes in. COA built on the experience of remaking the Riverwest Kadish Park. COA’s Goldin Center at 24th and Burleigh Street was located in “the single most distressed area in the city – the Amani neighborhood in zip code 53206,” Schneider said.

COA bought the facility, which had gone bankrupt, for $450,000 — it was assessed at $5M plus. Another $300,000 for renovations converted the building to what became the COA Goldin Center. It held separate rooms for pre-teens, teens, dance, computer learning lab, visual arts room and two gyms, and became the largest youth center in the city. And for the next six years, it was used almost exclusively as a youth center — unlike Riverwest, which serves the entire family. “We wanted to get deeply rooted in the neighborhood before we added more holistic programming that, like the original Settlement House, would help people become self-sufficient,” Schneider said.

The Amani neighborhood had the highest rates in the city for crime, infant mortality, unemployment, foreclosure, and more. Amani neighborhood residents had shuttered themselves in their houses to avoid the crime and violence. And COA looked at the impact of its efforts in Riverwest and realized that a comprehensive approach – not just isolated individual programs - was needed to make fundamental change. And this model was based on two fundamental principles of community development: engage residents and build neighborhood assets.

Back to the Amani neighborhood and the old boarded-up indoor Moody Pool next to COA’s Goldin Center. It was a haven for gangs and drug dealers, Schneider said. COA worked closely with the Milwaukee County Parks and Recreation Department; and the County Executive agreed to add $2 Million to the County budget to demolish the old pool building and create a whole new park.

COA and the County involved Amani residents in planning what the park should look like by inviting them to numerous meetings over multiple years. And after 3 years of planning, in August (2015) the new Moody Park was opened with a splash pad, community building, sports field, basketball courts, and community gardens.

COA also realized that there was no doctor’s office or medical services for families in Amani – and the St Joseph’s Hospital’s ER was 30 blocks away. That was in 2011, when Peggy Troy Peggy Troy, CEO of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, initiated a partnership with COA. Together we began holding community meetings at the Goldin Center.

The first meeting drew more than 100 residents and led the new partnership to form the Amani Community Advisory Committee to help plan a pediatric and family health center. To accommodate residents’ wish for an all-ages family-centered healthcare clinic, Children’s partnered with Marquette University College of Nursing.

“With Children’s we started Family Health Nights at the COA Goldin and every other month 250 to 500 parents and kids participate.” Schneider said.

“At the same time (within a month of the clinic opening), we also opened the new family resource center (funded by Doris Duke Foundation) to provide family and parenting programming,” Schneider said. He explained that anyone who came to the family resource center was referred to the clinic, and vice-versa, creating a “synergy” of health and well-being resources for the entire family at the Goldin Center.

Advancing Positive Outcomes: COA also noted that the Amani neighborhood had only one three-star early childhood education program serving only eight kids – and there were no 4-Star or 5-Star programs.

“But without quality early child ed, by the time kids start school they’re already so far behind that most never catch up,” Schneider said. That’s why COA decided to build a quality early childhood education center in Amani. With amazing $2 million support from the Burke Foundation and additional funding from the Herzfeld Foundation, COA planned and designed a space, got the permits, began construction, and built a new early ed center providing the first Amani quality early childhood education center right at the Goldin Center.

COA also formed a close partnership with the Dominican Center for Women to establish the Amani United Neighborhood Association to involve residents in the growth and development of their own neighborhood. Residents began neighborhood clean-ups, formed block watches, and developed a sense of collective advocacy and empowerment. Residents played a key role in planning the new Moody Park and planning the new clinic.

Building Rev. Dr. King’s “Beloved Community”

Once the most distressed neighborhood in Milwaukee, thanks to COA, the Dominican Center for Women, dedicated residents, Amani United and many partners and donors, Amani residents now have access to:

— quality early childhood education
— family and parenting programming
— quality after-school and summer youth programming
— pediatric and family healthcare
— a great new park
— resident engagement and empowerment

The Goldin Center is an official polling place and the number of Amani residents voting there has doubled over the past 4 years.

Over three years, crime dropped more than 20% in the Amani neighborhood. It’s still a tough area, Schneider said, but three years ago, 2% of all crime in Milwaukee was in Amani, an area of 8,000 people. By 2015, crime in Amani was down to 1.5%. Yet, Schneider added, all points of the compass beyond Amani saw crime increase.

Schneider attributes the lowered crime rate in Amani directly to resident engagement. He said that, until COA published and helped partners distribute Amani’s own newsletter, residents knew only what the news media covered: mostly crime, and rarely positive improvements, such as the opening of a new early child education center.

COA was invited to join a national model that examines how to transform communities called Place-Based Population Change. Coordinated by UCLA and working together with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York, they selected eight communities in cities across the country as models of community development and transformation. Every few weeks they have a conference call to discuss what’s working and what’s hindering progress; and they all meet twice a year in person. This October, the meeting was hosted by COA and the Dominican Center for Women in the Milwaukee Amani neighborhood.

Schneider’s leadership of COA, his open mind, vast knowledge of the effects of poverty on children and the network of children’s court and youth agencies, and his imagination and drive helped to unite Milwaukee agents and agencies to begin to heal a broken neighborhood. He said that they have a long way to go, but they have already come a long way. They have laid the foundation for growing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Communities” in the most distressed neighborhood in Milwaukee, which means one of the worst in America. Which means we can overcome this demon still running free:

“Racism is total estrangement. It separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits. Inevitably it descends to inflicting spiritual and physical homicide upon the out-group.”
--- Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on September 09, 2016

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