To the tune of elementary-aged appeals, Melady Elifritz, literacy coordinator at Vera Court Neighborhood Center, pulled down a plastic bin of would-be recyclables like empty liter bottles and broken cardboard boxes.
“I knew you guys would like the ‘box of creativity,’” she said while removing the re-purposed items. “Someone’s trash in another’s treasure.”
Melady’s “box of creativity” is in some ways emblematic of a community center which has developed creative and frugal programming in an environment stretched for resources.
The center, located on Madison’s North Side, serves over 180 youth, first grade through high school, through a variety of after school programming and provides support for families living in and around the Vera Court neighborhood.
“Staff were going through and throwing stuff away, so I put it all in a box and set it in front of the kids,” she said. “They went nuts! These kids are so bright and creative, and they’ll make something that I could have never created.”
The center itself is a product of similar ingenuity.
A community created, constrained
Established in a small apartment in 1990, Vera Court Neighborhood Center was initiated by local residents who saw a need for centralized community resources and information. Since then, a variety of programs targeting academic success, gender, race, housing and leadership have been developed and sustained by a team of seven staff and more than 20 volunteers.
The center also provides more tangible provisions like a shared meal on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights.
However, Middle School Rise Program Coordinator Grace Moran says the growth and success of these programs has been partially constrained by a lack of space and resources.
“With doing dinners and programming, some things fall to the wayside,” she said. “High school programming, for example, has unfortunately been one of them. We just haven’t had the time or space for more robust efforts.”
In response, the center recently launched a Capital Campaign, Vera Vision 2020, with the intention of doubling the size of the center and enhancing both child and adult programming. More broadly, the 1.7 million dollar campaign aims to close the achievement gap by 2020.
“My dream for Vera Court Neighborhood Center is definitely to shorten the achievement gap that we have in lower income neighborhoods,” youth worker Jerrod Buckner said.
The “achievement gap” that Jerrod refers to has become one of the most talked-about issues in U.S. education. University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Gloria Ladson-Billings has done substantial work in this area and describes the achievement gap phenomenon as “the disparities in standardized test scores between Black and White, Latina/o and White and recent immigrant and White students.”
However, Landson-Billings has written several pieces in an effort to reframe the achievement gap instead as “education debt,” or the accumulation of historic, economic and sociopolitical factors over time which have put non-White students at a disadvantage compared to their White counterparts.
Vera Court Neighborhood Center has already developed some programming to address these disparities including targeted literacy groups and after-school tutoring, Grace said. The center reports that 61 percent of participating children are African American, 26 percent are Latino and 95 percent come from low-income households.
Blaise Foueppe and Hortence Nguipet, parents of four students who attend Vera Court programming, said they owe the center, at least in part, for their children’s’ success.
The family immigrated from Cameroon six years ago, at which time their oldest daughter, Vanessa, now 16, spoke no English.
“The center is amazing, so good,” Blaise said. “They have the power to transform Vanessa to the level she is at now. [The center] has been very helpful to her outside of school.”
In addition to addressing the achievement gap, center staff are looking to boost other program initiatives though the campaign.
“We’re hoping that with the expansion we’ll also be able to expand our adult programming,” Grace said. “We just don’t have the resources right now.”
While parents may be involved to the extent that their children are, she said there is still room for targeted adult programming, as well as more family oriented activity.
“My dream for Vera Court would be to connect with the whole family,” Grace said. “Right now, we have a really good relationship with parents, but it’s the kids who are coming here every day. It would be really wonderful to have that whole family aspect here, so that we’re able to have other things available for parents, for grandparents, for family potlucks and fun nights.”
Running on relationships
In the meantime, the Vera Court Neighborhood Center continues to impact those it involves, beginning with the kids.
“Most kids come here because they like it here, because they feel comfortable here,” Grace said. “Many of them, as they’ve been here for a number of years, see it as their second home.”
Jeremiah, an eighth-grade student who attends the center programming, echoed this sentiment.
“My favorite part of Vera Court is the people here, the staff, because they really know how to help people,” he said. “They know how to interact with people and they really help me with my homework and getting me ready for high school.”
More than half of the students interviewed pointed toward Vera Court staff when asked about their favorite part of the center.
“Vera Court is fun, and the staff are caring,” Symone, a fourth-grade participant, said. “And I feel like they care.”
This is a reality that Jerrod has also identified in his more-than-seven years with the center.
“I think a lot of kids come from single-parent homes and they don’t really have anywhere else to go to,” he said. “Even having siblings or their parents, there’s nothing like being able to go somewhere else where you feel really comfortable with staff — it’s almost their bigger brother, bigger sister.”
Center staff have also extended this comfort and trust to the wider Vera Court neighborhood community.
This was demonstrated when Grace sat down to help a community member type a note just minutes before children were scheduled to arrive for after school programming.
A group of local residents had drafted the note which addressed an urgent community concern affecting a fellow tenant.
“We’ve got to stick together,” the anonymous source said, referring to the note. “That’s what the community is for.”
Grace typed quickly as the draft was read off, reinforcing trust with every key.
“Vera Court has a really strong relationship with the community,” Grace said. “We have a lot of people who have been here for a long time.”
The building of such relationships not only impacts neighborhood residents, but also those who lead the center.
“Even the staff find themselves not wanting to go home,” Melady said. “On Fridays, the kids will be gone, but we’ll still be chatting in the kitchen or loitering by the door. It’s really a place of community.”
Though the community center remains a bit too cozy for comfort, Melady said it continues to incubate a kind of “box of creativity” within its walls.
“These kids are so creative,” she added as she packed up remaining recyclables. “They are going to do big, big things.”