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'It should not matter where you start out': Evers budget focuses on helping Milwaukee's troubled 53206 ZIP code

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'It should not matter where you start out': Evers budget focuses on helping Milwaukee's troubled 53206 ZIP code

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes comments on the need for good oral health care while visiting Cudahy Middle School.
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes comments on the need for good oral health care while visiting Cudahy Middle School.
Photo: Rick Wood / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Friday, March 8, 2019

More than half the children in Milwaukee's troubled 53206 ZIP code are living in poverty. It's an area where unemployment is widespread and others are trapped in low-wage jobs.

The state budget proposed by Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes aims to help people living in 53206 with funding for an urban gardening program as well as child care programs.

"It serves nobody in any part of this state to continue to ignore communities such as 53206 and others like it," Barnes said Thursday in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "So this is a very intentional effort focusing on one of the most distressed parts of the state and coming up with solutions to try to change it."

Barnes, who spent his early years in 53206, added, "If we can make change happen there, I think that we can show we're able to make change happen anywhere in the state."

Evers is a Democrat and his overall budget faces steep hurdles in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

If approved, the budget plan would provide $25,000 in each of the next two years to We Got This, a gardening program in 53206 that encourages black boys to become active in cleaning up the community.

"The reason that we see a lot of less-than-productive activity that goes on in communities like this, it's because opportunities are very few and far between," Barnes said. "This gives young people a chance to, one, get involved; two, occupy time; three, earn a few bucks in the process."

Andre Lee Ellis, founder of We Got This, said the funding could be used in several ways, including helping the organization obtain a resource house, providing assistance to those who are homeless and feeding the more than 80 children and volunteers who support the program during the summer.

Andre Lee Ellis, founder and director of "We Got This," comforts Devin Bell, 17, who shared with his peers some of his struggles during the "We Got This" summer program in June. (Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

He said it could also be used to expand the group's math, reading and music programs.

"This is one of the best examples of how people of all diverse backgrounds come together in the name of love and to support our children," Ellis said.

We Got This is a gardening and mentoring program on the corner of North 9th and West Ring Streets. Starting in June and going through August, black boys ages 12 to 17 volunteer cleaning up trash in the neighborhood, are connected to adult male mentors and learn gardening skills.

The boys and volunteers are fed and allowed to take food from the 25-bed garden. Each child is paid $20 every Saturday for four hours of work.  

'Boots on the ground to help people'

Ellis, 58, who has congestive heart failure, diabetes and high blood pressure, said sustainability of the program long after he is gone is his goal.

"We are about to start season number six on June 15," he said. "We operate by putting boots on the ground to help people. It's as grassroots as you can get."

Mayor Tom Barrett praised Ellis' work.

"We Got This is a phenomenal initiative," Barrett said. "If you want to see community involvement and positive role modeling in practice, We Got This is exactly where you want to go."

Another initiative in Evers' budget would be focused on creating quality, affordable child care in the 53206 ZIP code. It calls for spending $655,000 during the first year of Evers' two-year spending plan, and another $749,000 in the second.

Some of that money would be used to create a grant program in an effort to upgrade existing child care providers to five-star providers as rated by the state's YoungStar child care improvement system. The grant money would help cover child care provider startup and ongoing costs.

It would also boost funding for several different programs that provide educational opportunities and training for current and future child care workers.

The goal would be to increase the educational levels of child care workers in an effort to lower turnover and increase quality.

Barnes said the goal of the budget initiatives is to provide more access and opportunities for everyone, regardless of the ZIP code you were born into.

"It should not matter where you start out," Barnes said. "It shouldn't matter your ZIP code. It shouldn't matter your family's income. You should be able to get ahead."

[This story was originally published by Journal Sentinel.]