Well, that was easy.
That’s what Letesha Nelson thought as she completed a move from Memphis to Madison at the beginning of the year. She moved to town to take over as executive director of the Goodman Community Center on Madison’s east side, replacing Becky Steinhoff, who led the center for 31 years.
But the situation facing neighborhood and community centers in 2021 is anything but easy. In order to pull off a smooth transition into her new role, Nelson knows it will take all of her zeal and optimism to tackle declining revenue streams, safety protocols, pandemic mental health effects and increased demands at the Goodman food pantry.
Like many other community organizations, the Goodman Community Center managed to not just survive a year filled with tumult, it helped the people it serves get through their own struggles.
In an interview earlier this month, Nelson’s energetic voice cut through the dreariness of an ongoing pandemic, racial justice debates, gun violence and a bruising presidential election, not to mention a run of bone-chilling winter weather.
“It was a good, easy transition,” Nelson said of her move. “I was able to ease into it. I never thought I’d be back in Wisconsin! It was no nerves and no stress.”
Nelson spent her first few weeks on the job surveying the scene and making connections. The Madison she arrived in is different than the one she remembers from her Milwaukee childhood. When asked about the gun violence that affects many of the north and east side residents served by the center, Nelson was surprised: “Shooting? In Madison? What?”
“The doors here are not open ‘just because,’” Nelson said. “They’re open to give hope so that the children coming here can see something different than in their corner of the world. I hadn’t heard of all the violence. But this last year was unprecedented with COVID-19 — with the election, with all the men being killed by police officers — and I think people are starting to find their voice around what means a lot to them and how to make a change.”
Staff at Goodman and Madison’s 22 other community and neighborhood centers are on the front lines of dealing with those issues, especially the pandemic’s economic impact. And like professionals in every line of work, they’re innovating to keep up with the pandemic’s shifting demands.
Programs like Goodman’s Girls Inc. and Vera Court Neighborhood Center’s Life As A Boy continue to keep kids engaged, listening to them as they work through personal and academic problems. Lussier Community Education Center on the west side has converted its gym to store necessities for families.
“The community centers spread throughout the city have a direct connection to the children and families in their neighborhoods,” said Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, who helped serve meals at the Goodman Center over the holidays. “They have amazing, creative and caring staff who are able to connect with people, either in person or via Zoom. The centers are, in some cases, one of the few opportunities some families have to access Wi-Fi in a safe, physically distanced environment. I am delighted that the city is able to support them and that we as individuals can do the same.”
For Nelson, the work done by staff at the Goodman Center, located just off of Atwood Avenue at 214 Waubesa St., and other community centers is about stopping and preventing cycles of illiteracy, violence, teen pregnancy and unsafe environments faced by those living in poverty.
Growing up in Milwaukee, she saw what those cycles looked like, but she also benefited from having parents who worked for the Social Development Commission, a Milwaukee community action agency that offers programs addressing education, nutrition, mental health and wellness. That advocacy work left an impression.
“I remember marching for Ernie Lacy,” Nelson said. “He was a young black male killed by police. I remember being a little girl marching and not even knowing what it was, but because my mom and dad were people who advocated for the cause, I was marching too.”
Nelson, who was very young when she became a mother herself, emulated her parents by passing down a better life to her kids and giving them the tools they would need to do whatever they wanted with their lives.
“I was a teen mother and my mother was a teen mother. I have four kids, two boys and two girls,” she said. “It’s hard to break a cycle. But I look back and say to myself, ‘You broke a lot of cycles.’”
Pandemic, protests combine for trying year
The COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice protests that took over Madison streets last summer deeply affected those who staff community centers, people who are more plugged in than most to social justice issues.
“All the people doing the work are also experiencing the pandemic and a renewed focus on racial violence and racism,” Lussier Community Education Center executive director Paul Terranova said. “And so it’s not like the people doing the work are immune to those effects. These are unavoidable conversations.”
Terranova said that things have never been busier around the Lussier Center, located just to the north of Madison Memorial High School and Jefferson Middle School at 55 S. Gammon Road. The most challenging work has involved those affected most by COVID-19 and the conflicts over racial justice — nationally and in Madison — throughout the summer.
“It was very much a part of our lives after George Floyd was murdered,” Terranova said. “Our organization has always developed a priority around racial justice. It’s part of the Lussier Framework we use and those conversations were already happening.”
Prior to the pandemic, staff and kids alike might have had more time to gather and discuss the major race issues that came to a head last summer in a near-unprecedented way for young people who may have attended their first protests.
But with the COVID-19 outbreak, staff were required to set kids up on computers to make sure that, going into the fall, they weren’t falling behind academically. They are now working with groups of middle and high school students at the center, and with elementary students at Jefferson, to allow for distancing.
“We’re just starting to plan for reopening school,” Terranova said. “If what happens is that (kindergarten to second grade) go back and (third grade to fifth grade) stay virtual, we will continue operating in much the same way we are now. The choice that hasn’t been 100% made is when the kindergartners through second grade go back to full in-person, do we stay with that program or serve more third to fifth graders?”
Staff have also shifted their work from running a weekly lunch for seniors and Madison School and Community Recreation courses to distributing food and other necessities to people in need. The facility is using half of its gym to store diapers, personal hygiene products and other supplies.
At the Vera Court Neighborhood Center on the north side, program director Tom Qualls said staff were able to return to in-person programming in the summer without seeing spread of the coronavirus.
Qualls started at Vera Court a year ago, right before the pandemic hit. At that time, the facility saw about 50 elementary school kids and about 20 middle school kids every day. Today, Vera Court serves about 35 kids, total, split into four separate pods.
“In March, we had a pretty serious conversation across the whole agency about shutting down,” Qualls said. “We continued to work remotely and we put together a variety of virtual after-school programming from about early April until June, until we got back on our feet again and thought we could have a safe outdoor summer camp.”
The summer camp included four pods with 12 kids each. Seeing how participating in camp activities benefited the kids and how smoothly it ran encouraged center staff to consider continuing in-person programming during the school year.
“I think the kids really missed their friends,” Vera Court executive director Tom Solyst said. “The kids that are home doing virtual school on their own, they don’t get a chance to see their friends as much as the ones who come to the center. It seems like the mental health of the kids is really good. They like coming to the center and seeing their friends. I can’t speak to the academic thing, that’s kind of a downside of all this virtual learning.”
Meanwhile, at Goodman, participation in the youth programs plummeted. According to its annual report, from September 2019 to mid-March 2020, Goodman served 543 kids, from 3 years old through high school. From mid-March to the end of August, that number dropped to 181, with the largest drops happening in the middle and high school programs.
The center’s youth programs have primarily served the children of frontline workers during the pandemic, said Amie Hoag, Goodman’s assistant director of communications and annual giving.
Classroom size restrictions as well as hesitant parents contributed to the lower numbers, said Hoag, but the center still views its efforts as a success.
“We were able to have some kids on site,” she said. “Some of their parents were essential workers who couldn’t take time off from work.”
And much of the center’s efforts shifted to its food pantry. Hoag said the number of families and seniors served by Goodman’s food pantry increased considerably during the pandemic.
“There was an incredible increase in our demand,” Hoag said. “And we introduced a food delivery service to the east and north side families, support groups and seniors.”
Goodman also provides social gatherings for seniors. They have approximately 650 older adults who participate in programming, which includes bundling up to socialize from a distance at outdoor coffee hours. Those started before the pandemic, but seniors enjoy them so much they opt to brave the elements to stay in touch with their friends.
“One of the things we know for sure is this isolation is hard for seniors and has an effect on their mental health as well as their physical health,” Hoag said.
COVID’s economic punch
Some community centers, like Goodman, have built a steady revenue source over the years by renting space for weddings and other gatherings. That activity has come to a halt since last March.
For Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, events take on a different meaning. The center is the primary organizer of Fete de Marquette and the Willy Street Fair and is a significant participant in the other east side festivals. That activity generates revenue that supports center operations, which includes youth programming and free meals.
According to Gary Kallas, executive director at Wil-Mar, festivals generate close to $300,000 each year, roughly half the center’s budget, along with plenty of community morale. Not being able to hold their signature events last summer was a definite blow to the center, which had just undergone a $1 million renovation.
Kallas didn’t even want to think about having to cancel again in 2021.
“Yeah, that’s a lot of money and that was not there for us last year, and neither was the festival,” Kallas said. “Now, if we have two years like that? Ugh.”
Financially, Wil-Mar has been able to survive because of a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and help from individual donors. The center continues to provide children’s programming virtually.
As with other community centers, Wil-Mar runs a food pantry and provides emergency food services. Prior to the pandemic, the center served a free meal each Saturday. That operation is now carryout and has moved to the center’s front door, but Kallas said they are serving about the same number each week.
But the building itself sits vacant.
“We have a brand new, renovated space and the building has never looked better,” Kallas said. “But we don’t have anybody in it. I don’t know when that’s gonna happen. We’re looking for more of an all-clear sign before we go back to fully functioning.”
In addition to its flagship center on the north side, Vera Court Neighborhood Center also operates the Bridge/Lake Point/Waunona neighborhood center on the south side, along with the Latino Academy of Workforce Development. In order to pay staff, the organization has relied on PPP funds as well as grants and individual donations.
Maintaining a full- and part-time staff was an important commitment for Solyst and providing the level of programming people have come to expect at the neighborhood centers was paramount.
“We’ve been able to do that,” Solyst said. “There’s been a lot of opportunities where we’ve applied for grants and a lot of individual donations, and the help from the federal program, that we’ve been able to keep afloat. Our commitment is to maintain the same level of programming. We’re probably not going to get the same amount of PPP loan this year, so this year we have a large fundraising goal.”
At Lussier, Terranova said the community has kept the operation afloat with unprecedented giving.
“People have been incredibly generous,” Terranova said. “I don’t think I can say that enough. We also got one of those PPP loans, which was very helpful. There’s been COVID support grants through United Way and the Boys and Girls Club, and there’s been a couple of Department of Administration grants through the state that were helpful.”
But he said people are also donating directly because they recognize the needs being filled at the center.
“The number of people who gave to the center for the first time last year was higher than I’ve seen in years,” Terranova said. “People who can are really looking for ways to help. So we came out of last year pretty strong and we’re gonna need that.
“It seems like a good number of people turn to community centers as a place that’s going to be relevant. We don’t take that for granted and we’re honored, and grateful, people see us that way.”
Leaders of the community centers interviewed for this story were proud to report their food pantry and meal box delivery programs are going strong.
But being able to fulfill their missions as safe places for youth to spend time was a concern. They’re focused on preventing the loss of programs offered and concerned about the long term effects on mental health among the children they serve.
For Terranova, acting like everything will be better when the world is “back to normal” post-COVID is not productive.
“Normal wasn’t great for a lot of people,” Terranova said. “A lot of the crises that people are going through are what they were going through before COVID, just intensified. Those needs aren’t going away unless, of course, we use this pandemic as an opportunity to build more justice into our economic and social systems.”
At Goodman, Nelson already has her focus on the future. Addressing children’s literacy needs is an issue that transcends the pandemic.
“I’m hoping that Goodman can be the lighthouse that gives hope and allows people to find their voice, regardless of where they come from or how they got there,” Nelson said. “Making sure that literacy is an option for everyone. Once you can read, you can do anything. But if you’re not literate, you’re always going to struggle.”
Vera Court will continue providing its programming every day and managing effects of COVID-19. If a kid tests positive or is in direct contact with someone carrying the virus, staff will shut down the child’s pod and the kids and staff related to it will stay home for a full quarantine period.
“We’ve certainly learned to go with the flow,” Solyst said. “Every positive case is serious, but we’ve kept an even keel. If a child or staff needs to go to quarantine, that’s okay. We separate the kids. We hand out masks and take temperatures in the morning and if anyone isn’t feeling well, they go home. Our staff has become more confident as the year’s gone on.”