Tom Schneider, Executive Director of the Children’s Outing Association, sometimes wants to pull his hair out while writing budgets and reports. But he’s making a difference in the community. And to see the difference, he need only leave his office to stroll to Kilbourn Park. We did that during the interview and Schneider spoke of the difference between when he started, 10 years ago, and today.
“There was no skyline view here,” he said. “It was all scrub trees. Drug dealers and prostitutes were at the west end of the park, and there was trash and crime. It was a nasty place. We worked with the city and they literally cut back the hill, got rid of all the scrub trees. When you opened up that view, the park became bright. So we put in a sports field, we put in community gardens to deal with the food scarcity issues, we built a mini amphitheater to bring the community out and bring the community together. Now the drug dealers are gone and the prostitutes are gone, and the crime and the trash in that park are gone.”
The non-profit COA has been a part of Milwaukee for 105 years. It specializes in education programs for families, children and adults. When Schneider took over, the organization reached 3,000 children and their families. Today, it reaches 25,000. Programs are run out of 40 local schools, a camp near Stevens Point, and the Riverwest Center and the Goldin Center. Over 90 percent of its funding goes into programming. Programs range from early-childhood education, after-school programs, summer camps, adolescent leadership camps, adult GED training, partnerships with schools and more.
“We come out of the settlement house tradition, so we provide an array of skills that help families become independent,” said Schneider.
COA’s many programs, taken together, serve larger goals of helping families to become self-sufficient and helping to transform neighborhoods.
Jonathan McGee has worked at the Riverwest-based center for five years and recently became a program coordinator there. McGee works mostly with teens in the after-school program where they work on homework, take low-stress classes and socialize with each other and COA staff. As a program coordinator, McGee now tries to tailor the teens’ activities to push them out of the building and their comfort zones.
“I try get them involved in the whole community,” he said. “I just try to keep them busy, keep them interested, and open their eyes to different things, cultures, people.”
In one case, McGee brought the outside world into the facility during the Riverwest 24 Bike Race. The teens gave tours of the facility to approximately 130 bikers, during which both groups had to ask each other probing questions about how to better the community.
“It was a good experience for both sides to just open up and talk to an adult of a different culture than you are, or just an adult in general,” said McGee. “I just want them to get those life experiences, to just open their eyes broader, [to see] that your life is bigger than the block you live on.”
Toward that end, McGee took some of his older teens on a tour of college campuses from Georgia to Tennessee. Some had never been farther away than Racine.
“I was thinking about being a lawyer, but now I don’t think that’s what I want to be. Now, I’m thinking about being a doctor,” said Hampton.
Both of them came to COA looking for a safe place with a positive environment. Austin arrived two years ago at the recommendation of another family member. Austin urged Hampton into COA and she joined a couple months ago.
“In high school, you really don’t get along with other people, but at COA it’s like a family,” said Austin. “There’s not that much drama,” chimed in Hampton.
Despite having to take more classes at COA, Austin scoffed at the idea of going home.
McGee finds fulfillment in watching his teens mature. Sometimes his groups call him uncle; recently one of his teens asked him to be the godfather of their child.
“I want to hear some good stories when I’m an older man,” said McGee.
For Schneider, it’s not just about helping an individual. He is struck by the disparities he sees when driving from his Shorewood home to Riverwest.
“What we invest in as a community will shape the community we all live in,” he said. “It’s easy to sit back and bemoan crime and unemployment and poverty, but everybody has a chance to reach across that river, to reach across the things that separate us, and to invest in our community.”