Sue O’Keefe read several pages aloud from “Mrs. Toggle’s Beautiful Blue Shoe,” which Neveah Harris had chosen from several boxes of donated books in the “We Got This” garden. Then the retired Milwaukee Public Schools teacher offered Neveah a turn to read about the teacher who lost her shoe playing kickball.
“Since I retired, that‘s the one thing I miss … the kids,” said O’Keefe, who taught at Auer Avenue School and Rogers Street Academy. “I’ve always loved to read and I’ve always loved to read out loud,” she said. So when We Got This founder Andre Lee Ellis put out a call on Facebook for volunteers to read to children in the garden at 9th and Ring streets, O’Keefe signed up.
Ellis officially kicked off the fifth summer of his youth mentoring and employment program on Saturday, June 15. As he has every year since he started the We Got This program for black boys and young men, Ellis is brimming with plans and ideas for expanding the skills and life lessons he offers participants. This summer, “Wednesday Reading in the Garden” is an expansion on last year’s Little Free Library installation, where Ellis offered donated books to anyone who wanted to take one.
Ellis plans to plant a fruit orchard and create another gathering place across the street from the garden in a vacant lot acquired from the city last year. That project moved forward in mid-June when Century Fence Company donated and installed a fence around the lot. Ellis also is expanding his efforts to prepare the young men for employment. He is looking for experts in several fields and inviting employers to hire older youth who participate in the program.
“When they can read they will succeed,” said Ellis of his focus on literacy. He is inviting people of all ages to the garden from 5-7 p.m. every Wednesday, rain or shine. They can read on their own or read to others, and choose books to take home. Ellis said he welcomes book donations.
At the first Wednesday Reading in the Garden, four adults, including Ellis, and a gaggle of about 10 neighborhood children showed up. Lavita Booker relaxed in a lawn chair with a book, savoring the slow pace and warm weather of the early summer evening. Stephanie Morris, chatted with the children, mostly girls, at a picnic table where they were looking through books.
Ellis took a call from a city worker arranging a visit to the garden by a professional arborist who wants to give back to the community by teaching the boys and young men about his occupation. “I want to develop some arborists,” Ellis said. “There’s a lot of trees in the ‘hood that need surgery or need to be chopped down.”
Having long hoped to teach culinary skills the young men can use to get jobs, Ellis is taking steps to install barbeque equipment in the garden this summer. “I would love to … offer classes where professional chefs came in and cooked in the garden and we could do our own cooking show live on Facebook,” he said.
Ellis is continuing to teach the young men, many of whom do not have fathers in their lives, about grooming, formal attire and social skills including communication. “We’re going to offer everything from financial literacy to reading, to personal development,” he said.
The We Got This employment program, in which participants are paid $20 for four hours’ work from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, remains popular. The participants from previous summers were anxious to get started this year and began showing up on Saturday mornings several weeks before the official beginning, Ellis said.
Brothers Nate and Roshaun Collins started with We Got This when the program began in summer 2014. Though they live across town in the Metcalfe Park neighborhood, they have relatives near 9th and Ring, where they can stay over.
“Me and my brother come during the week and make sure the garden is clean and ready for Saturday,” said Roshaun, 16, who will be a junior at James Madison High School this fall.
Ellis has been “like a father figure” since Roshaun started coming to the garden at the recommendation of a friend, he said. “I gained a lot of knowledge that I believe I won’t be able to learn in school — a lot of hands on skills and a lot of social skills … that will help me down the line,” he added.
Nate, 18 and a recent Madison High School graduate, said We Got This is “a motivational and inspirational program, where kids learn valuable skills, have a mentor, (and learn) how to be gentlemen for our future wives and for when we start dating.”
Ellis noted that the Collins brothers have been hired through Employ Milwaukee to work in the garden every day this summer.
Omarion Outlaw, 15, who will be a sophomore at North Division High School in the fall, is starting his first job outside the garden, at Culver’s on Capitol Drive. When he was 11, he wandered into the garden, and when Ellis asked him if he wanted to participate, he said “yes, to keep me out of trouble.” He said that in addition to earning money to buy clothes and video games, Ellis taught him how “how to plant stuff and how to get jobs.”
Ellis said he remains committed to “doing things that will strengthen the youth in the community, because that’s truly the tomorrow that we should be building.“