Finding Inspiration in Washington Park

Written by Beth Heller
    Friday, 09 January 2015
Youth from Washington Park’s Young Scientist Club Youth from Washington Park’s Young Scientist Club

“I want to feel safe, a sense of comfort.”

“I want to come to a place where I can just be who I am.”

“I want to know that my sisters are safe.”

All of these comments came from teens responding to the question “How do you want to feel when you come to the Urban Ecology Center?” During the second half of 2014, we had nearly 80 people attend community forums and listening sessions in Washington Park, almost half of whom were children or teens. The quotes above came from youth who understand how important it is to have a place in their community where they can relax, unwind and just be.

Last September, Washington Park’s Branch Manager, Willie Karidis, received the wonderful offer to be Chief Operating Officer for the Iditarod dogsled race. Since his departure, I’ve been a pinch-hitter for our Washington Park Branch Manager position.

Just a year before Willie left, the Milwaukee County Board voted unanimously in support of a five-year lease agreement with the Urban Ecology Center to allow full use of the entire Washington Park Pavilion. With the full lease in place, we then could begin to solicit ideas people had for our branch and future programming. Part of my role was to facilitate the community forums. As I’ve done this deep dive into the Washington Park community, I found myself inspired not only by the teens quoted above, but by the community as a whole.

As a substitute member of the Washington Park Partners steering committee, I saw first-hand how residents, non-profits and law enforcement were working to build trust, aiming toward the shared goal of creating a safe neighborhood. The result: 30% reduction of crime in one year. People are passionate about reclaiming their neighborhood. And it’s working!

In December 2014 United Methodist Children’s Services, lead organizer for Washington Park Partners, was given a MetLife Foundation award for community partnerships with police in creating safe places. Competing with 560 cities across the country, Milwaukee as a whole received three of the eleven awards given. Together we are envisioning a community where we all can feel safe. The teens’ comments reflect this need.

Combining the work of neighbors, organizations and police we’ve witnessed a 56% reduction in crime over our first five years at Washington Park. With 22,000 visitors coming into the Washington Park branch last year, plus an additional 36,500 visits from people recreating in the park (44% of whom were children), we are helping to create that place our teens have requested: a place to unwind, relax, feel safe and be yourself.

Are you one of our south side neighbors? You can provide your own inspiration by joining us at the Menomonee Valley Community Forums where kids, teens and adults will share their insights on February 3rd and 5th. In both cases, we offer a safe space, a sense of comfort and a listening ear. Come on over!

I want more people to be inspired by the communities surrounding our branches. With this in mind, I encourage you all to come to Washington Park on the afternoon of January 24th for the Center’s Winterfest. You might witness some of the teens whose comments spurred the writing of this article as they ice skate with siblings, fly down the sledding hill, or simply “be themselves” while sipping hot chocolate.

Beth Heller

Beth Heller

Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning, Beth received her Masters in Business Administration from UW-Milwaukee in 2005, where she received the Outstanding Business Plan award for a plan to launch a branch of the Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park. She graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI in 1994 with a B.A. degree in Biology and Education. Beth began working at the Urban Ecology Center in 2000 to combine her love of the city with her appreciation of nature. Beth loves to sail, bike, sing and hike.


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