Some raise a side of what will be a large, wooden house at one end of the room, while others lay plastic siding on another wooden house. The men laugh and chat as they saw wood, hammer nails and hang drywall. The remnants of their lunches are strewn across a makeshift table of stacked sheets of wood.
None spoke of their criminal pasts, and all seemed eager to test their skills in building a playhouse to be auctioned off at the WCS 100th anniversary auction on May 10.
During its century-long history, WCS has had four names and helped countless community members. Its purpose is to create opportunities for offenders and ex-offenders with mental illnesses and addictions as well as high-risk youth and adults.
WCS workforce development programs help high-risk residents learn transferable skills through vocational training, employment skills training, job placement and job retention support.
Torre Johnson knows what it’s like to be in jail. He knows what it’s like to be caught up in the thick of a gang. Johnson also knows what it’s like to change his life path; WCS helped put him back on his feet after his incarceration.
“Everything that I didn’t know, I was taught (at WCS),” Johnson said. “And I’m still being taught.”
Johnson now works at WCS as a site manager for three of its community projects: Project Excel, Milwaukee Excel High School and the Holton Youth + Family Center. Project Excel and Milwaukee Excel High School address the educational needs of middle and high school students involved or at risk of involvement in substance abuse, the criminal justice system or gangs. The Holton Youth + Family Center is an urban community center serving those in the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods.
Johnson spends most of his time at the center, which houses WCS and two other community organizations. Johnson has lived in Riverwest since childhood, and greets friends and neighbors as he walks down the street. He said he has five biological children, but countless others consider him a father figure in their lives.
“To me, (WCS’) mission is to keep people going forward and show them that they are worth living for, because a lot of people come here sad, and they come out happy,” he said. “Or they learn something … even if you mess up, you still take something from here that you can fall back on in life.”
In a computer lab, where ex-offenders practice employment skills, is a hand-painted quotation from Malcolm X that sum up the WCS philosophy: “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
Anne Osterwind, WCS director of development and communication, said the quotes on the wall are important reminders for clients every day. WCS was originally founded as the Society for the Friendless, an organization with chapters all over the country that visited inmates and did just what its name implied: became friends to those who had none.
“To me, that phrase still just encompasses somebody who’s down and out and needs someone to help them out – that’s who we’re helping,” Osterwind said.
WCS’s history extends to 1912, when the society opened its doors to incarcerated individuals and their families. Over the years, the programs changed with community needs. WCS opened its first halfway house in 1974, followed by a mental health clinic in 1978. Three years later, WCS began offering employment services to inmates at the House of Correction, a Milwaukee County-run penal institution, and opened a community-wide program to assist difficult-to-employ persons with criminal records.
In 2011, WCS served more than 15,000 individuals in its various programs.
Johnson said he would not have succeeded if WCS had not stayed after him.
“Sometimes, we’ll disappoint ourselves and not worry about what other people think,” Johnson said. “But when you’ve got people like a team around you like that, you can’t afford to lose them.”