Zelodius Morton is concerned about sex trafficking in Milwaukee. As a psychotherapist who has focused on the welfare of underprivileged children for most of her adult life, Morton sees clearly how vulnerable children in her community are.
“(Considering) what the traffickers are looking at, low self-esteem, it’s really important that (young girls) learn how to feel better about themselves,” said Morton, who meets weekly with female students at Robert M. LaFollette K-8 School, 3239 N. 9th St.
Most of the students there come from low-income homes, and are both innocent and hungry for attention, according to Morton.
“The first day I met those girls they were so eager to give me so much of their information,” she said. “They were clinging to me and they didn’t even know me,” added Morton. She noted that traffickers often use women to disarm the girls they target, who are about 11 years old.
Morton lives several blocks south of LaFollette, in the home that her mother bought when Morton was 16. Since her own children were in high school in the early 1990s, she has dedicated herself to improving life for young girls and others in need, first as a foster mother, and then as a therapist and neighborhood leader.
Morton’s longest-running project is “Dream Girls,” a mentoring program for pre-teen and teen girls in which she provides a safe, inclusive environment to build relationships, knowledge, skills and emotional health. Morton’s work with LaFollette students is her most recent version of the program. She started there last spring after a several-year hiatus to recover from knee surgery.
“These young girls who don’t have guidance, who don’t have proper clothing, come together and talk with us about their issues and they feel like they’re a part of something that is theirs, something they can connect to,” said Suzette Allen, who has worked with Morton as a group facilitator since the beginning of Dream Girls.
According to Allen, Morton is a wonderful role model for young girls, “and even for me and I’m 48.” She cited Morton’s generosity, passion, energy and persistence. Allen, a parent coordinator at James E. Groppi High School, 1312 N. 27th St., has been so inspired by Morton’s work for positive change in the community that she moved into Morton’s neighborhood of Borchert Field, she said. Morton is chair of Borchert Field C.A.R.E.S., a neighborhood association.
In October, Morton and Allen organized a Halloween celebration for neighborhood children in an empty lot where Morton helped to establish a small park. Last summer, the Dream Girls gathered there to talk and work on art projects.
Morton hopes Dream Girls will do for the community’s girls what her neighbor Andre Lee Ellis is doing for boys through “We Got This,” a grassroots mentoring program. Like Ellis, Morton encourages her young protégées to envision their future.
Dream Girls evolved from Morton’s guidance of four teen girls who lived with her as foster daughters 20 years ago. These “goddaughters” as she calls them, were hurting from the rejection of mothers struggling with drug addiction, according to Morton.
She said she would talk to them about how to deal with their disappointment and hurt after their mothers stood them up on the weekend, and they would encourage each other. Listening to them, she understood the depth of the girls’ pain.
Angel Hull, who came to live with Morton at 11 years old and stayed for about four years, said, “Zelodius was as loving as if I was her own child.”
Hull, now 32 and a successful Atlanta business owner, said Morton taught her everything she knows about how to behave, present herself and speak.
Tomika Woods, a cousin, helped Morton mentor young women who were first-time offenders in the criminal justice system. “Zelodius always had a heart for the underprivileged and the voiceless,” Woods said. “Her motto is, as long as you have life you have hope.” Morton always tries to encourage young women not to give up, she added.
A Rufus King High School graduate, Morton studied criminal justice and psychology at Springfield College Milwaukee and in 2005 earned a graduate degree in adult education from University of Wisconsin Platteville. Over the years, she has taken many additional courses to help her better address specialized mental health issues. In addition to alcohol and drug abuse counseling, parent education, anger management and conflict resolution training, Morton assists families of homicide victims through grief counseling.
One of those she has helped is Larry Dean Jones, a long-time neighbor. Jones was devastated by the murder of his son, Demario, 25, who was shot to death in a fight on May 1.
“After it happened, she always was there to talk with me and make sure I’m alright, and to help me find help,” Jones said. “She even took up a collection from people in the neighborhood for flowers (and) to help out with the funeral.”
Recently, Morton initiated “Teddy Bear Sunday,” an upcoming event where she will present teddy bears she has collected to grieving children.
This fall Morton completed the Salvation Army Chaplaincy Training Program and expects to work with the Milwaukee Police Department to help victims’ family members at crime scenes and in the aftermath of tragedies.
Morton continuously finds ways to improve life in her community, said Woods. “She believes every child deserves to be loved,” adding, “If she sees a need, she steps in and helps.”