Midtown center works to improve area image

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This is the first of a two-part story exploring funding issues at two separate community organizations in Milwaukee. The second part will run Tuesday.

The approaching arrival of May and the increasing frequency of bright sunny days can only mean one thing for many Milwaukee youth: School will soon be out for summer.

But as many grade school and high school students begin feeling the heat of summer and take to the streets, one Milwaukee neighborhood is feeling the heat of a social stigma it has been desperately trying to shake.

The Rev. Maurice Lawrence, founder and executive director of the nonprofit True Our Brothers' Keepers Community Justice Center, 2126 N. 23rd St., is a driving force in the fight to reverse stereotypes that have unwantedly been bestowed on the predominantly black Midtown neighborhood during the past several years.

Since Lawrence founded it in 1999, the center has occupied its current location in a former two-story duplex in the heart of Midtown. Lawrence said the center is currently in the final stages of securing a new, larger facility at 2121 W. North Ave. It is one of three community justice centers funded through block grants from the city of Milwaukee.

The neighborhood's reputation as one of the most crime-burdened areas in the city was intensified in fall 2002 when 36-year-old Milwaukee resident Charlie Young Jr. was attacked with bats, rakes, shovels and other objects by a group of mostly juveniles.

Young died in the hospital two days after the attack, and a melee of local and national media coverage ensued.

With summer vacation looming around the corner for most students, Lawrence is scurrying to finalize plans for the center's summer youth program. Such a program, he says, is a vital tool for preventing future tragedies — such as Young's death — from occurring in the neighborhood.

"It's getting hot," Lawrence said. "If we don't do something soon, we're going to continue to have these problems. (Young's death) was the result of a lot of kids with no place to go and having nothing to do."

Two obstacles stand in the justice center's path to offering a summer program: securing funding and finding qualified staff and volunteers. The obstacles, according to Lawrence, are inextricably related.

Instead of the increased support Lawrence says was pledged to the justice center following Young's death, the group has watched organizations with more name recognition, such as the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club, reap the benefits.

"Everyone's saying, 'Well this tragedy took place that made national news,' but we're down here doing the work but we barely can get help to do what we're doing," Lawrence said.

The lack of funding has also made it difficult for the center to secure qualified staff.

"To have professional people you have to pay them," Lawrence said.

Lawrence hopes to have a professional staff member on hand for the summer program, which will tentatively take place six days a week throughout the summer months. Relying on a strictly volunteer staff creates a volatility that impairs the center's ability to impact youth.

"We're really looking very hard for funding because if we don't have funding and we're operating (solely) on volunteers, it's going to be very scary and critical," he said.

Currently the after-school program has four volunteers who alternate shifts on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Obtaining committed volunteers can be just as difficult as finding quality staff, especially when some volunteers show up on a sporadic basis, Lawrence said. When he started the after-school program about two months ago, one of the two volunteers scheduled to work that day never showed up.

"The first day we started we had a whole bunch of kids show up (but) the volunteer didn't show up," Lawrence said. "So guess what? Most of those kids didn't come back.

"It's hard when you get youth that's ready to do something different and you don't have anyone there, and you break their heart and let them down. How many times are kids let down?"

The center has been able to catch a break from the Milwaukee Urban League, which has an annual agreement to fund the center's bookkeeping free of charge. Milwaukee Urban League President and CEO Ralph Hollmon said if True Our Brothers' Keepers were to hire out bookkeeping services they could pay as much as $10,000 a year.

Hollmon said the Milwaukee Urban League believes the work being done by the center has the potential to have a positive impact, which is why it chooses to help the center.

While the extra funding is not an end-all solution to the center's problems, the center has been putting the money it has into use. In addition to the numerous services it offers — which include home visits, parenting classes, counseling and probation and parole workstations — the center recently unveiled its new computer lab.

All six of the lab's donated computers are networked and Internet-accessible.

Even the neighborhood's youth say the presence of the center's infrastructure in the community is desperately needed.

Markel Carter, 16, lives with his grandmother a few blocks from True Our Brothers' Keepers and recently joined the group's basketball team. Carter's perceptions of Midtown shed light on the kinds of experiences its youth encounter.

"The community is horrible out here," Carter said. "A couple of years ago there was a shooting right in front of my house … and a bullet went through my window."

Carter, who speaks matter-of-factly about his experiences, also said that on more than one occasion he has been robbed in the neighborhood.

Karyn Halmstad, 24, a junior at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, volunteers once a week with the after-school program. Characteristics of Midtown serve as reminders of Halmstad's own childhood neighborhood.

In "the neighborhood I grew up in, all the kids could play outside together, and it seems like that's a dying thing," Halmstad said. "So many kids sit inside and watch TV and play computers, but here people know each other. It's like a big family. I feel at home in that aspect … it's just something really good that I wish the violence could be taken out of it."

However, Lawrence is reminded on a daily basis that Midtown needs help. When loud shouting between a man and a woman is heard outside the center, Lawrence is distracted.

Although short in stature, Lawrence embodies an air of confidence that drives him to go outside and try to squelch the argument. All the while a group of boys crowd the center's doorway and clamor to watch as their leader becomes involved.

While others might turn their heads to such a spit-spat, Lawrence acts as if it's his mission to stop the arguing.

"We have to fix the problem internally because (we are) all part of the same family."

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