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Member Andy Connors: Growing Stories of Community, Kindness, and Belonging

Written by Kristin Nelson
    Thursday, 07 February 2013
Member Andy Connors: Growing Stories of Community, Kindness, and Belonging

Long-time Urban Ecology Center member Andy Connors is a born storyteller. Growing up within the Anishinaabe community along the Bad River in northern Wisconsin, Andy developed a strong sense of Native American identity through his ability to engage and connect with others through storytelling. Embracing his outgoing personality and narrative skills, Andy obtained a degree in Journalism, performed Native American folk music, and shared his stories of nature and cultural identity as a teacher at the Indian Community School in Milwaukee.

Ten years ago, the course of Andy’s personal narrative changed abruptly. He suffered a stroke that significantly changed the way he could tell his stories. As a result of his stroke he developed aphasia, a condition that causes him to struggle with verbal language formation. With inspiring optimism, Andy found numerous ways to adapt and thrive within his new circumstances. He utilized his talents as a singer to “connect his thoughts to language first,” noticing that his ideas emerged more fluidly as he sang the words instead of speaking. He also co-founded an aphasia support group, thus building a community around sharing strengths, skills, and stories as a resource for others.

Andy continued to teach after his stroke, and was moved by his students’ response to his new communication style. He explains, “Kids don’t care how you talk or if you talk at all. They see you the same. How you speak is not relevant to them. They still know who you are as a person.” Unfortunately, Andy’s position was eliminated due to the school’s economic challenges. He embraced the “silver lining” of his situation by giving himself time to heal while also supporting his wife through her personal challenges. Due to serious illness, Andy’s wife is receiving treatment in a nursing home. When he’s not by her side, you will often find him at the Urban Ecology Center.

Andy discovered the Urban Ecology Center when his granddaughter, Ellette, was 6 months old. He has lived across the street from Riverside Park for years, but was not familiar with the mission and presence of the Urban Ecology Center until our building began to grow before his eyes. One day he carried baby Ellette inside to explore, and they’ve been creating new stories there ever since. 

Ellette at UEC Buggy

When asked why he feels it’s important to be a member of Urban Ecology Center, Andy strongly emphasizes the sense of community, family, and safety he feels when he is there. Almost daily, you can find Andy at the Center greeting visitors and staff, chatting and joking happily with volunteers, or silently reading in front of the fireplace. When Ellette is with him, he feels very comfortable knowing she is in a safe environment surrounded by caring people. Ellette can explore the Animal Room, count frogs in the pond, and play games while Andy keeps a relaxed eye on her. He has watched her build relationships with other families and Center staff over the years, citing her “B’Earthday Parties” at the Center as some of her favorite and most memorable events. Former Volunteer Coordinator Susan Winans referred to Ellette (who exudes warmth, kindness, and sociable energy much like her grandfather) as “volunteer kid,” making her a special nametag to display her “role” at the Center.

Ellette at Summer UEC

Andy also gains a personal sense of purpose from his involvement at the Center. He is a consistent volunteer, and especially enjoys helping staff member Carijean Buhk with the Newsletter and other promotional materials. Beyond “official” volunteering, Andy serves as an ambassador for the Center simply through his presence and warm engagement of visitors. It’s very common to see him energetically advocating for programs, features, and the mission of the Center.

When asked about participating in programs and activities at the Center, it’s not surprising that Andy chooses very social, festive events as his favorites. He loves attending the Annual Volunteer Appreciation Meeting and Celebration, Fall and Earth Day Festivals, and the Local Farmer Open House. When his wife’s health was stronger, he loved to share the experience of growing food in the Center’s community garden plots with her. He explained that just as the edible plants they nurtured were diverse and varied, so were the interesting people he met and learned from through the community gardening process.

Andy also feels meaningfully connected to the Center due to the positive change it has created in his neighborhood. “Before the Urban Ecology Center building was made, there was nothing here for people in the neighborhood,” he explains. “Now, this special place exists for us, and we can belong.” Andy employed the metaphor of a Native American powwow to illustrate his feelings about how the center meets this need.

“Native Americans are very community-minded people. When we gather for powwows, all the people from surrounding tribes gather to meet family members and catch up. That’s where stories are exchanged and grown. I feel the same when I am here.”

Andy emphasizes the decrease in crime and heightened sense of safety he has noticed as the Center developed (“The park and neighborhood seemed to become safer overnight!”). This value of safety and comfort extends to a personal level for Andy. He sees the Center as a “safe haven” where he can constructively cope with emotions related to his wife’s health, while watching others learn, grow, and build their own sense of community. He also expresses gratitude for the recent addition of accessible trails and a majestic cedar bridge over the bike trail that can be comfortably utilized by people who struggle with mobility.  Because of these inclusive considerations, he feels welcomed to experience the resources of the park safely with his wife and granddaughter.

Being a member of the Urban Ecology Center has many valuable benefits (About Membership), but perhaps the most impactful is the sense of community and belonging that is evident within our inclusive programming, dedication to education, and stewardship for the land which we share. We take great pride in welcoming all people into our community of members, regardless of their ability to pay for a membership. There are many creative ways to contribute to our abundant community, including (but not limited to!) volunteering, donating items for a silent auction, or advocating for our mission within your personal sphere of influence. If you are interested in becoming a member through our scholarship program--- or donating to our membership assistance fund--- please contact me at 414.955-8505 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Kristin Nelson

Kristin Nelson

Kristin is the Development Systems and Membership Specialist at the Urban Ecology Center and is deeply inspired by the generosity of our members, donors, and volunteers. She is delighted and humbled everyday to see kids grow, learn and heal through the Center’s programs. When she’s not at the Center, Kristin is working on her MS in Community Psychology, painting, and playing and laughing with her son.

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