Editor’s note: This piece is one of an occasional series on nonprofit leaders in Milwaukee. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
After visiting a Texas women’s prison with a Christian ministry, Linda Wade wondered how she could keep youth in Milwaukee from spending time behind bars. In 2001, her faith, passion for the arts and desire to help low-income families led her to found Above the Clouds, a nonprofit helping children ages 5 to 17, through free dance, music and creative arts classes. The sessions are mostly held at the Holton Youth & Family Center, but also at five other sites across the city.
Q: Where does your passion for the arts come from?
A: I was a heart patient for seven years, so I started painting when I couldn’t do physical activity. When I healed, I joined a Christian dance group called Dance Eternal. I saw the benefits for myself as an artist — it gave me the confidence and strength I needed — so I transferred that over to studying ballet with the William Reilly Academy of Ballet in Milwaukee.
Q: Why did you start a nonprofit as opposed to a for-profit business?
A: I wanted to focus on the children and families in our community. Being a nonprofit really encourages us to stay on our mission. I wanted to keep the classes free for the kids who wouldn’t have this opportunity otherwise. Most of our children are from inner city Milwaukee and can’t afford classes – African American, Hispanic; we have about 5 percent Caucasian and Asian, too. We wanted to give them all an opportunity to study art.
Q: Who inspired you to take on this role, and who continues to inspire you?
A: I was always withdrawn as a heart patient, so I didn’t have that person that pushed me to do this. I think my faith and relationship with God keeps me going and gives me the strength so I can do all things. Someone that inspires me now is my co-founder Barbara Melsheimer, because she keeps me balanced. But when I reflect and see what I count on consistently, it’s my faith.
Q: What are some of your day-to day activities?
A: My job is to hire the teachers and the staff, get to our sites and oversee them. We make sure the teachers have what they need when they get to the sites, whether it’s ballet, theater, music, hip-hop or cheerleading. I also collaborate with the sites, making sure that they’re open to the community so children can get there. I do all of the grant writing and the promotions of Above the Clouds, too. It’s an extensive job.
Q: Sounds like it. Exhausting, too?
A: It is, because you’re in charge of fundraising, but also making sure the families are getting what they want from your program. We ensure the students are getting good grades in school. We deal with families where the grandparents are raising the children because parents are not involved, or in jail or on drugs. We have many single parents, too. It’s a challenge to try and balance all of that while running a nonprofit and making sure we still have the funding we need. We have only been around for 15 years, and many people don’t know about us, so getting donors to see the value of an arts education is key. It can be stressful. It can be exhausting. But it is extremely rewarding at the end of the day.
Q: Can you tell us more about the rewards?
A: With all the unrest in the Milwaukee area, it’s rewarding that our teachers and students get to mingle with people that are not from where they are and do not look like them. Our children get to see all races, so they get to interact with children from different neighborhoods that they wouldn’t have interacted with before. They’re able to see that everybody is the same, and they can build friendships because of this. That’s just as rewarding as seeing families coming together from different areas of the city, finding out about each other and helping each other.