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‘A place for all people': Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center will get a major makeover, but its mission stays the same

  • 12 min to read
‘A place for all people': Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center will get a major makeover, but its mission stays the same

As dancers assembled on a recent evening in the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center’s Yahara Room, the floor creaked and groaned beneath their feet.

“I want to put on a song and I want to go all the way through,” instructor Jason Zabinski told his Jumptown Swing dance students before cueing up “Take It Easy Greasy.”

The Yahara Room was used for over 1,100 classes, meetings, parties, concerts or other events last year, more than three each day.

“Everybody has multi-purpose rooms,” former Wil-Mar director Georgia Marsh told the Cap Times in 1973, “but ours are multi-multi-multi-purpose.”

That comment is just as relevant 46 years later.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, a WERQ dance fitness class takes over the space. On Tuesdays, it’s time for Israeli Dance, with Scottish Country Dancing on Sundays (“No kilt necessary!” Wil-Mar’s website says) and English Country Dance on Mondays. And then there are community meals, story slams and senior exercise classes. 

All of that use has taken a toll. The wood floor has been sanded “down to the nub,” said Wil-Mar executive director Gary Kallas.

“If you sand it more, you’re falling through,” said Stahcee Hanger, the center’s administrative assistant, with a laugh. “Even walking on it sometimes, I’m like, is today going to be the day that I somehow fall from this room?”

That’s about to change. By October, the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center will have undergone long overdue renovations to transform the space, along with other areas of the well-worn building at the corner of Jenifer and South Brearly streets in the heart of Madison’s near east side. The work will happen during the busiest time of the center’s year, when it plays a major role in presenting five summer festivals.

In the 50 years since the center opened in the former Pilgrim Congregational Church, the surrounding Marquette Neighborhood and nearby Williamson Street have radically transformed into one of Madison’s most desirable areas to work, live and play. Throughout that transformation, Wil-Mar has remained committed to its motto: “A place for all people.”

While the building may look a little fancier in the fall, the center will house the same scrappy organization it always has, staff say.

“There is something really grassroots about this place that I think people are drawn to,” Hanger said. “I would just love to see Wil-Mar remain that unique funky place that you know everyone from all walks of life can feel comfortable in.”


The main office of the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center on Jenifer Street. The building, built as a school in 1877 and altered to become a church in 1914, is in need of updates.

A new look

The Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center was established in 1969. A few years later, in 1976, the Capital Times described the “shabby in spots” center as home to a children’s summer day camp, senior noon meals, teen workshops and pottery classes.

Today, the center offers an after-school program and summer day camp, a weekly senior noon meal and daily exercise classes, as well as dance classes galore and meeting space for groups like the Marquette Neighborhood Association, Gamblers Anonymous and Madison Story Slam.

The shabbiness persists. Built as a school in 1877, the building was altered to become a church in 1914. The floor in the Yahara Room floor is not only worn thin, it slants.

“We used to use weights in our class, and they would just roll down this way,” said Reni Kilcoyne, a regular in the senior exercise class. “I’ll show you, you want a demo?”

She put her water bottle on the floor and it immediately rolled down the length of the room.

There are cracks, chipped paint and at least one sticker of a butterfly on the room’s walls. The attached kitchen needs a new dishwasher, a new stove, cabinets and electrical outlets that provide the proper voltage.

“This carpet is so ugly, and it stinks and it’s stained and it’s everywhere up here on the upper level. It needs to go,” Hanger said with a laugh. 

“You look around that building, it’s falling down. I mean, it is not in great shape,” said Bob Hemauer, president of the Wil-Mar board of directors. “For the last 50 years we’ve put everything back into the people who have come through the doors of that building.

“We’ve invested that money in people, not in paint. Now it’s time for us to kind of pause and invest in the paint, so we can continue investing in the people.”

To that end, Wil-Mar launched a $2 million capital campaign, part of which went toward the 2017 purchase from nearby Immanuel Lutheran Church of a parking lot, basketball court and playground across the street. The money will also be used to revamp the current space, knock down and build some walls, create a fitness room and ditch the drop ceiling in the Yahara Room.

Wil-Mar runs an after-school child care program for kids aged 5 to 12, but suspended its teen programming a few years ago. Renovating a youth space downstairs is high on the priority list, after which staff plan to recruit teens for a program where they can gain skills helping plan and implement Wil-Mar’s festivals, and then be paid to work at the festivals in the summer.

The center is the sole organizer and beneficiary of Fete de Marquette and is active in organizing and producing the Marquette Waterfront Festival, AtwoodFest, Orton Park Festival and the Willy Street Fair.

Wil-Mar earns almost half its budget through its participation in the annual summer festivals. That self-sufficiency can sometimes mean that donors forget that Wil-Mar is a nonprofit in need, Hemauer said.

“We provide so much and ask so little of the neighborhood and, frankly, of the city, that it’s changing gears to ask,” Hemauer said.

Wil-Mar had raised about $1.3 million out of the needed $2 million when staff learned about an opportunity that could significantly help with renovations.

Design for a Difference is an annual charity event that provides an interior design makeover with updates like new floors and paint to a nonprofit organization. It’s made possible by donations from businesses and individuals and organized by local flooring company FLOOR360.

“Wil-Mar is the perfect recipient for this year’s makeover because they have a true identity disconnect between who they truly are and the look and feel of the space where they survive,” said Angela Skalitzky, project manager at Design for a Difference Madison. “We are hopeful that we can transform and rejuvenate this into a space where they cannot just survive, but thrive.”

But accepting that help meant Wil-Mar had to move up its timeline to get major renovations done first, like knocking down and adding walls, all while still running the ongoing capital campaign. 

“We had to say yes to that award. There was no way we could say no. Then we put our caps on and we just thought this thing through,” Kallas said.

The operation will move out of the building by July 1 to make way for construction. It would have been simpler to cut out this year’s summer programs like the popular Eastside Express Summer Camp, Kallas said, but detrimental to the community.

Instead, Wil-Mar found satellite locations for its activities and will move administrative offices and fitness classes a few blocks away to Main Street Industries, a business incubator owned by Common Wealth Development at 931 E. Main St.

“It’s not like when you move your own apartment. You’re like, ‘Oh wait, and we’re taking hundreds of people with us. And they all have a lot of questions,’” said Beatrice Hadidian, the center’s development and program director.

But the end result, Kallas said, is that “every visible space, all the things you see, the carpet you walked on ... will all be new and changed.”


The youth area at the Wil-Mar Center in Madison.

The busiest time of the year

On a breezy morning in Yahara Place Park on the shore of Lake Monona, volunteers lined trash cans, vendors assembled tents and a few naked mannequins waited to be dressed with merchandise.

The opening of the season’s first east side festival, the Marquette Waterfront Festival, was just a few hours away.

Hadidian spray painted orange numbers on the sidewalk to direct vendors to their assigned spots. She planned to arrive at 8:30 a.m., but figured her body knew better when she woke up at 6 a.m. It’s difficult to sleep the night before the festival, in anticipation of all the work that lies ahead.

Wil-Mar supports the Marquette Neighborhood Association’s Waterfront and Orton Park festivals, partners with other organizations to produce the Willy Street Fair and AtwoodFest, and is solely responsible for Fete de Marquette. Combined, over 100,000 people attend the festivals every year.

Wil-Mar handles the vendors for Waterfront and Katherine Davey, festival chair for MNA, said Wil-Mar also helps with a lot of the “nuts and bolts” of the event.

“They are the neighborhood's festival experts,” Davey said.

Armed with a clipboard and cell phone, Hadidian was the point person for vendors. Organizing no-admission events is central to Wil-Mar’s mission, Hadidian said, but “it’s not free for us. It takes an extraordinary amount of time and patience and effort.”

“Every Fete feels like a barn-raising,” Hemauer said. “(Staff) are out there getting sunburned, raising money for their organization … The staff here does not function like executives, and I think that’s a strength.”

Kallas sometimes works 60- to 70-hour weeks in the summer. At Fete de Marquette, you’ll see him “schlepping garbage cans,” Hemauer said. Other staff and board members put in significant hours as well. Hemauer said he once hit 36,000 steps on a festival day.

Hemauer said he was drawn to serve on the board because of the “let’s roll up our sleeves and do the work” mentality of Wil-Mar. 

“We’re a little bit smaller, we’re a little bit scrappier, we are a little bit more affordable,” Hemauer said. “We historically have done a lot with less.”

While Wil-Mar’s festival work reaches a massive number of people, the actual neighborhood center operations haven’t changed much. The center was serving 700 people a week in 1976 and serves an estimated 700 to 800 people a week today.

In contrast, Goodman Community Center, located about two miles away in the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood, serves over 30,000 people each year and has almost doubled its physical space in the last decade. According to the center’s 2016-2017 annual report, it brought in almost $7 million.

“I’m lucky to have two neighborhood centers in my district,” said Ald. Marsha Rummel. “But it's easy to also look and see the differences. Goodman’s amazing, and Wil-Mar is also amazing, but in a scrappier (way). Five people are going to do it and get it done, not 105 people.”

Kallas commended Goodman for its work stretching its service area to the east, including into Madison’s low-income Darbo-Worthington area, while Wil-Mar is hemmed in by Goodman on one side and downtown on the other. Nevertheless, Wil-Mar has thrived where it is, Kallas said, with “a different kind of success story.”

“Our success story is built on the lives we have changed. We can do that. We can’t do it in the numbers that say, Boys and Girls Club and Goodman have done,” Kallas said.

Hanger is one example of a life changed. She started coming to the center when she was about 5, grew into an active teen participant, got her first job at Wil-Mar and started working in the office about 10 years ago.

“I say all the time that this neighborhood has raised me and it’s pretty factual,” she said. She wonders where she’d be without Wil-Mar. “Sometimes … I think I’d just be like a kid just kind of out there in the streets, whatever, lost, confused, wandering, trying to get my life together.”

Whether coordinating a festival or welcoming teens, Wil-Mar has its own flavor. Staff describe the center’s vibe as funky, laid back and relaxed. Hemauer’s favorite Wil-Mar memory took place during a “nightmare scenario.” There was a torrential downpour on the Friday night of the 2018 Fete de Marquette. It’s Wil-Mar’s biggest festival, responsible for raising about 20% of its budget.

Staff and volunteers ran around frantically to protect everything they could from the rain, then gathered under a tent.

“It was the worst thing that could have happened in terms of fundraising for the center, but it was like this kind of really great precious moment where it was this gallows humor and we just kind of looked at each other and started laughing,” Hemauer said. “We knew we’d get through it.”


Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center full-time staff. Left to right: Administrative Assistant Stahcee Hanger, Executive Director Gary Kallas and Development and Program Director Beatrice Hadidian.

A place for all

About 30 people gathered around round tables in the Yahara Room on a recent Saturday to dig into lunches served on styrofoam plates. 

The occasion was Wil-Mar’s weekly free community meal. On the menu was spaghetti, meat sauce, broccoli and salad. Four men sitting around a table said they have been there every week for the past five or six years. What would they do if this meal didn’t exist?

“Starve,” one man said.

“Find a church,” said another.

A man named Rick sat alone at another table. He comes maybe 10 times a year when he “ain’t got much choice.”

His food stamps only stretch far enough for meals of soup and crackers, he said. If he wasn’t eating at Wil-Mar, he’d probably be eating some lunch meat, like he did the previous night. He was living in a hotel room.

Today, houses in the Marquette Neighborhood routinely sell for well over $300,000, but a 1976 Cap Times story described Wil-Mar as located in a “problem-ridden neighborhood.”

“The community has been devoting much of its energy toward maintaining its residential character and coping with problems such as vandalism, alcoholism, and isolation,” the article said.

In 1977, the city’s Landmarks Commission published a historical survey and walking guide of Williamson Street by Gary Tipler, a historic preservation consultant still active in MNA who was then a University of Wisconsin-Madison student. It noted the “waning commercial strength of Williamson Street,” vacant manufacturing and warehouse buildings and decreasing factory employment.

When Kallas first arrived at the center in 2001, there was a dedicated police officer for the area, and when he needed to go door-to-door to collect signatures from Williamson Street residents, he was advised not to do it at night.

Rummel moved to the 1200 block of Spaight Street in 1982, when there were shootings in the area and “some kind of sketchy dive bars.”

But by 2013, the area was named one of the American Planning Association’s top 10 “great neighborhoods.”

“It’s not Maple Bluff, it’s not Nakoma, but it is becoming more affluent,” Hemauer said.

Hanger, the administrative assistant who attended center programs as a child, has seen many of those changes firsthand. Her family used to live in a neighborhood building owned by infamous Madison landlord Ray Peterson. In 2015, a judge declared his properties a public nuisance and Peterson sold them off. 

“We were kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. Do you want to stay in a neighborhood that’s becoming increasingly unaffordable, or do you just kind of want to move on? So we just ended up having to move on,” Hanger said.

Wil-Mar used to offer a senior meal program five days a week, but reduced those offerings to once a week and added senior fitness classes. Twenty years ago, all the Wil-Mar kids were from a “low and often extremely low income family,” but “now there’s a more diverse mix,” Kallas said.

The center still provides a weekly food pantry and community meal frequented by the food insecure and homeless, and an overstock bread and produce pantry near the door.

 The center sees about 12,000 visits every year for those services, Hemauer said. He believes it’s important for Madison to have economically integrated neighborhoods, which he said don’t happen without “services for people of all economic levels.”

“What I don’t want to see is the people that utilize those services being forced further and further out from the center of town. To have this kind of hub is really important,” he said. “It’s tempting to discount it because of where it is and how the neighborhood has changed, but there is a need.”

Hanger said lifting up center visitors who are “just a little low” and need help finding resources like a homeless shelter is one of the most rewarding parts of her job. Sometimes all they want is to “sit and talk your ear off about God knows what.”

“You know what? I don’t have time for this, but I’m going to sit and listen to you because it sounds like you need it,” Hanger said. “And that kind of shit makes my day.”

And if the neighborhood has seen a decrease in low-income residents, Kallas doesn’t believe they’ve all moved away.

In other neighborhoods, when someone becomes more financially stable, “the first thing they’re thinking about is moving the hell out, get to a better neighborhood. That’s the American way,” Kallas said. “Our neighborhood's different. We did things to help people not only get up on their feet, but then decide to stay.”

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The Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center plays a major role in presenting five summer festivals. Fete de Marquette is Wil-Mar's biggest festival, responsible for raising about 20% of its budget.

‘When it's all said and done’

Medical student Lydia Rafferty has been volunteering with a group of friends at Wil-Mar for about five years serving a community meal once a month. She’s ecstatic about the coming renovations.

“Having a dishwasher that works every time is going to be fantastic,” Rafferty said. “Coming in and all of a sudden not being like, ‘Oh my God, is that gas (I’m smelling) or is that my imagination?’ It’s usually my imagination, but still.”

Hemauer is most eager to see how excited Wil-Mar users will be about the updates.

“They are impressive to me and I want them to have a space that’s equally impressive,” he said.

Kilcoyne, the senior in exercise class, is excited to see new chairs in the Yahara Room.

“I mean, look at these,” she said, gesturing to one. “We would consider this a good one because it doesn’t have any big ol’ black tape on it and it doesn’t wobble.”

Hanger wants to see “this place spruced up.”

“It’s been a run-down, piece-of-shit building since I was 5. And you know what? We’ve loved every bit of it,” Hanger said. “And we actually do hope they keep some of that funkiness that this building has. But boy are we looking forward to seeing what it’s going to look like when it’s all said and done.”

But she also wants to make sure that as the center changes, it doesn’t leave anyone behind.

 “I want so badly for us to just keep some of those core values that we have, in terms of just helping those that are really in need,” she said.

Wil-Mar needs the renovation to ensure the center maintains a presence in the neighborhood for the next 25 to 50 years, Kallas said.

“Where people know, that’s our center, that’s our community space, that’s where we conduct business, that’s where we learn a dance, we learn a song, we send our kids to childcare, elderly adults come for fitness, low-income folks come for the food pantry and the community meal, and we all just are one melting pot,” Kallas said. “I can’t say it, I don’t think, any better than that.”

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