Raising Children Out of Poverty

By Patricia Obletz

Lee Shaw unexpectedly ended his lucrative career in finance to minister to at-risk kids in his childhood Milwaukee neighborhood. In 2002, he left his home in Cleveland, Ohio, to help his father move his store-front ministry into a big church and realize his dream. After father and son bought the old Lutheran church at 5375 N. 37th Street with 20,000 square feet, two large halls and a gym, Shaw learned why Wisconsin has the highest rate in America of black kids in prison, most of whom drop out of school. He said, “I understood why a University of Chicago study concluded that kids who can’t read by third grade are likely to drop out of school and end up in jail. I realized that I could help them improve their lives.”

Pastor Shaw, a 1973 graduate of Marquette Business School, used his faith, wisdom and financial wizardry to obtain 501©3 status for St. Gabriel’s Church of God in Christ to establish Safe Haven, a group home for people with development disabilities, a daycare center for seniors 60 and up, and mentoring programs for kids at risk. Four years later, he hired Minister Gregory Lewis to direct youth activities, who left his 14-year career coaching basketball for MATC.

Pastor Shaw said, “The Church has more than 400 members in mentoring programs. In 2007, we signed another 130 kids. Folks also come for daily hot lunches on a regular basis. Our doors are always open.

Wisconsin has the highest rate of African-American youths in prison, most of whom dropped out of school.

“The same 35–40 kids come at least three times a week. Some days we might have 60 kids. We let them use the gym for free, as long as they give me their report cards, and do well in school.” The Pastor offers $5 for every report card; $10 for raising an F to a D; $20 for a three-point average, $40 for a four-point average. “By just giving us their report cards, 85 percent of them invariably do better. When they do, I say, ‘You’ve done better, congratulations. Now, how hard did you work to get that C? Could you have worked harder for it?’ The kids always say yes. I say, ‘So you know can do better than a C, can’t you. Now, you know I expect better of you. What do you expect of yourself? Better?’ Their grades and behavior improve, as do their self-respect and work ethic.”

Minister Greg Lewis said, “Pastor Shaw helped me find purpose in my life, and now he’s got me helping kids find purpose in their lives. I coach basketball and also go to juvenile court a lot with families, talk with attorneys, and help navigate some of their issues. I’ll pair kids who aren’t attending schools with peer mentors, who also nurture them. Basketball teaches them teamwork, sportsmanship and integrity. When their attitudes improve, we introduce them to higher education.”

Pastor Shaw said, “We give kids small paid jobs to help them learn how to operate under authority, come to work on time, do a thorough job, and take responsibility for their actions. ‘Beat the pastor at hoops,’ I challenge them, so I can get to know them, treat them special, and learn how to best help them. I’m hard to beat, by the way, which gets their attention. When we finish playing, we talk about their lives, how things are at school, at home.

“Sometimes our kids get chased into the church by kids with guns; one of our kids was shot twice right outside the church, so we brought him in and called 911. Some kids pull guns out of their gym bags.

“One night, the police came looking for a young man. I called out his name in the gym and he came to me. I put my arms around him and said, ‘Are you in trouble with the cops?’ He claimed he wasn’t, but I held him and said that cops were here for him. I stayed with him to make sure neither he nor the cops did anything crazy.

“We bring in detectives to talk to kids about how to conduct themselves with the police, and how and what gestures of theirs might suggest that they’re dangerous. Cops have the right to seize control of situations that appear out of control by whatever means they deem necessary, whether or not bystanders agree with them.

“When we first started, we had disorder, but now, there is order because there is mutual respect, even from kids who still avoid school. Recently, I saw one of our boys with a lit cigar in his mouth at a filling station. I parked my car, walked up to him in front of his buddies and grabbed that cigar, stomped on it, took the kid by his arm into the gas station and told the owner, ‘This young man is a minor, you’ll get shut down for this.’ Of course he said that older kids buy cigarettes for the younger ones.

“Even kids who age out of the program are still welcome to use the gym — we don’t want to send them into the street; some of them become mentors.”

Minister Lewis said, “We have to show them how to act friendly and make friends. When someone looks uncomfortable, we go talk to him or her one on one. Just five minutes can foster self-respect.”

Pastor Shaw added, “Our seven-member staff all work with the kids, doing exercises with them, playing basketball, sometimes Monopoly, Scrabble and other games that teach them skills. These kids have gone so far in the wrong direction, it’s going to take time to build them up and help them turn around. We Americans do ourselves a great injustice. In China, there is no racial divide when it comes to education. Our kids in poverty, one in four, 15 million American kids, aren’t given equal opportunities.”

America doesn’t tend to the needs of kids raised by single mothers.

Minister Lewis said, “America doesn’t tend to the needs of kids raised by single mothers. Most African Americans are raised by a single parent, usually their mother. We do a great injustice to ourselves by not cultivating kids who can’t read and drop out of school; become single mothers, gang members, addicts; kill each other; know only the streets. Our programs help them. We have a 16 year-old mother who went from foster home to foster home, completely out of control, flunking everything. But we invited her to bring her baby to St. Gabriel’s mentoring program. Now she has a three-point average. We acknowledged her during Church service last Sunday.

“Most of these kids need fathering to help steer them away from street gangs — we help victims of crime as well as perpetrators. We also tell kids, ‘A real man wouldn’t shoot a gun into a crowd. A real man wouldn’t hurt a woman or a child. A real man provides for his family.”

The Pastor said, “We see a direct relationship between violence and lack of vocational training. Perpetrators of violence aren’t the ones who graduate from high school. They’re not the ones who believe they have choices. Too many of them believe they’ll be dead by age 25.

“We throw a lot of money back at the kids because the level of funding we receive from Medicare and Medicaid doesn’t require much money from appropriations for staff salaries. We not only pay kids to do small jobs, the Church also sponsors three basketball teams. They’re well-disciplined, talented athletes who play in American Athletic Union college and pro team tournaments all over the country. I lend my van to the teams if, in return, they attend a youth survey or gospel and worship event. We also have a 19-member praise-dance team that performs modern dance to gospel music. In fact, they opened for The Gospel Four at our first fund raiser for the Milwaukee Vocational Scholarship Fund, and for Yolanda Adams at our second one.

“This vocational fund was born in October 2006 in response to the murder of a 13 year old girl, a Church member. I was in my office when I heard the volley of shots that killed her right around the corner. At one of the prayer vigils for the family, we discussed how to stop the violence. Michelle Pitts, owner of Pitts Mortuary, suggested we create a vocational fund to give these kids something to pin their hopes on. I said my church would donate $500. When nothing happened after awhile, I called Michelle. She was too busy, she said. When I asked if I could take it on, she offered $1,000 to support it.

“To raise the profile of and funds for the scholarship, we booked the Gospel Four from Memphis, TN, for an August 2006 concert. After entering my prayer closet, the Lord said that packing the house was more important than charging for tickets. More than 400 people came; we had to add chairs to every aisle and balcony. Cash and check donations paid expenses plus a $2,000 profit. The 34 check writers donated four times more than the others, proving that, as the Bible says, ‘Where your heart lies, your treasures also lie.’ And the gifts kept on coming. We reinvested that profit in another fund-raiser and brought in Grammy winning, platinum-record gospel singer Yolanda Adams in November 2006. Then we had enough money to help 20 kids.

“We contacted Dr. Darnell Cole, president of MATC, to introduce our community to Milwaukee Area Technical College. Information is key. Of the Milwaukee Vocational Scholarship Fund, Dr. Cole said, ‘MATC applauds and strongly supports Saint Gabriel’s Church of God in Christ for bringing the kind of help and hope so desperately needed in our community.’

“The MATC Foundation matched the $20,000 we raised and now we have enough $500-scholarships for 40 kids. We also contacted support services agencies, met with their directors and formed a coalition to share information and direct at-risk kids to the right services for them.”

Minister Lewis said, “That $500 may not sound like much, but it says that we’re going to introduce you to college, provide you with case workers, mentors, tutors, even help with legal responsibilities. When they see that we believe 100 percent that they’ll succeed, they become more self-confident and less afraid to try. That $500 also buys them hope.”

Pastor Shaw said, “St. Gabriel’s and our partners are ready to give these kids the services they need to help them succeed.”



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

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