After working at Midwest Airlines since 1985, Lynda Kohler was in search of something different. During her free time, Kohler often volunteered with various nonprofits, and when the airline began to decline, she saw it as an opportunity to pursue a new avenue.
Kohler spent several years as president of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Eastern Wisconsin before becoming president and CEO of SHARP Literacy, a local education nonprofit, in 2012. Since then, she’s worked to evolve the organization while keeping it true to its roots.
“It’s changed over the years,” Kohler said. “But the belief that children can achieve success through creative expression remains.”
SHARP Literacy began in 1996 under Marlene Doerr Kreilkamp. She created an arts-based literacy program to help students achieve academic success through creative expression. Last year, the organization worked with 40 schools in Milwaukee, Waukesha and Racine to provide STEAM focused workshops. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, Kohler and the educational team committed to continuing its educational workshops.
“This year, in particular, when schools closed, we knew we had to step it up,” she said.
This past fall, the organization went virtual.
“We’ve had a few bumps along the way,” Kohler said. “But our teachers and our students love it.”
Becky Olsen has been a guide with SHARP Literacy for the past two years. She liked the multidisciplinary approach SHARP took to help students approach problems in a thoughtful way.
“My interest was in arts integration,” Olsen said. “In a true arts integration, the art has equal emphasis as the STEM.”
While the virtual platform has had its challenges, Olsen said in some ways, it has been better than before. For one, the guides, or educational facilitators, can now see the students’ names on the screen, which helps establish a rapport with the students, she said. Before, guides would see an average of 90 students a day.
Kohler and Olsen both noted that the biggest challenge has been making sure the students have the supplies to participate in the projects.
“We never look at them [the challenges] as obstacles but as opportunities,” Kohler said.
The SHARP educational team developed and packed activity bags for students to pick up from schools, but not everyone has the ability to do so.
It’s been a steep learning curve to make sure the students get what they need, Olsen said, but everyone has been willing to learn. People feel more comfortable now with the technology, and Olsen has seen an increase in attendance and participation.
The children are resilient, and the teachers are phenomenal, she noted.
During a workshop, one student at Hawley Environmental School, 5610 W. Wisconsin Ave., didn’t have the activity bag or paper to complete a project and instead used a napkin, Olsen said. The teacher quickly jumped in and assured the student that a napkin was OK.
Seeing the teacher validate that child’s creativity and learning reminded Olsen why she wanted to work with SHARP in the first place.
“Where these kids are, we’re going to meet them there,” Olsen said. “We’ll fill in the gaps and assure them that their learning is valid and real. The situation doesn’t need to be ideal for us to be effective.”
‘It levels the playing field.’
Tom Mroczkowski, a SHARP board member since 2014, said Kohler’s foresight and vision helped prepare SHARP for the digital age.
Mroczkowski said when he started with SHARP, it was very traditional, but Kohler has helped the organization become digitally relevant by transitioning its focus and remaining true to the organization’s mission.
“Lynda has a strong visionary sense on how SHARP can evolve in an ever-changing world,” Mroczkowski said. “Lynda helped it evolve in an important way to remain impactful and relevant.”
SHARP is an important program, he said, especially in Milwaukee.
The organization’s art education focus is the secret sauce to making SHARP a success, he said. Turning STEM into STEAM makes things fun and interesting, he said, and it helps the students build skills.
“It levels the playing field, to a certain extent,” he said.
This story is part of an occasional series that highlights groups and people worth knowing in Milwaukee. To nominate a person or a group, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Spotlight” in the subject line.