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Operation Fresh Start celebrates 50 years of empowering young adults in Dane County


Operation Fresh Start, a Madison-area non-profit that empowers emerging adults, ages 18-24, on a path to self-sufficiency through education, mentoring, and employment training, will be celebrating its 50th anniversary with a Gala event Thursday night at Garver Feed Mill on Madison’s east side.

“That we’ve been around for 50 years is pretty incredible,” Operation Fresh Start Executive Director Gregory Markle tells Madison365. “Over the years, there are so many folks in the community who have benefitted from the program and so many young people. It’s a pretty neat thing to be a part of.”

Operation Fresh Start Legacy program graduate Meloney (middle), with Morgan Eisele, OFS Resource Specialist (left), and Taylor Houghton. OFS Conservation Supervisor (right).

The 50th anniversary Gala will include awards, speeches from past participants, and a look at new programming coming to Operation Fresh Start in the future.

“The event will have a dinner with some speeches. We’re highlighting one person who completed the program each decade. We actually will have one person from the first crew. Of course, he’s now retired. And he says that it really changed his life back then and he had a good career in construction and a good life based upon what he learned at Operation Fresh Start 50 years ago,” Markle says.

Operation Fresh Start (OFS) was founded in 1970 to provide young male offenders and youth who had dropped out of high school with a paid, 30-hour/week opportunity to learn basic work skills, prepare for the high school equivalency examination, secure and retain employment at the end of training, and contribute to the community by renovating sub-standard housing into safe, energy-efficient, affordable homes sold to low-income families.

“Our mission is to empower youth and young adults to a path of self-sufficiency. So we do that through employment training and education and helping them take that next step transitioning to a career or post-secondary education,” Markle says.

A South Madison home was significantly renovated by Operation Fresh Start crews, as part of the Urban League of Greater Madison’s initiative to increase Black homeownership rates. (Photo supplied)

One of the things that Operation Fresh Start is most famous for is remodeling and building homes, but they do so much more. Through the Operation Fresh Start Legacy program, young people work on crews to improve Dane County parks, too.

“Over the years, we’ve built over 200 affordable housing units and we also do a lot of conversation work, specifically on Dane County parks and City of Madison parks,” Markle says. “Probably everybody in the community has been touched in some way with our work through a house on the block or a park down the street. Our young people have made a positive difference in the community.”

A large percentage of the young people in the Operation Fresh Start program are youth of color.

“Typically about 75 percent of our young people are people of color. Oftentimes we have people who didn’t succeed in the traditional school system or they have just graduated and we have some programs to help them move forward towards that next career,” Markle says. “The way we look at it is that we’re giving them the tools to overcome any biases or issues which they face going forward.”

Operation Fresh Start’s new home is at 2670 Milwaukee Street.
(Photo by David Dahmer)

The organization has been able to do quite a bit more since it moved into the new Operation Fresh Start Education and Training Center in 2019, which is located on 2670 Milwaukee Street on Madison’s east side.

“It’s awesome here. We’re about three times as big as our old space on Winnebago [Street]. It was quaint there, but this gives us enough room to do everything. We have a construction and conservation training lab, classrooms,” Markle says. “Honestly, when COVID hit, there was no way we could have crammed into the old space and made it work. So we are fortunate to have this new space where we can spread out and keep engaging with young people actively.”

Over the years, Operation Fresh Start has served 8,000 young people ages 16-24 and has expanded its target population to include women, single parents, and in-school youth.

“It’s cool to be part of this history. We have young people coming back all of the time to say thank you and to check in. Sometimes it’s been 15 years that they’ve been here but they have their resume stored here,” Markle says. “So they come back and update their resume and move onto the next job with our help. It’s a neat community to be a part of.”

Part of the impetus of this 50th-anniversary campaign has been raising money for the organization to be able to serve more young people.

“Over the course of our 50th anniversary, which we actually kicked it off last fall, we are looking to raise $1 million by the end of December,” Markle says. “I think we’re at somewhere above $800,000. With this Gala and through gifts at the end of the year, we’re hoping to reach that $1 million goal.”


Tickets for the Operation Fresh Start 50th Anniversary Gala are $100. For more information, click here. The event will take place Thursday, Sept. 30, 5 p.m. at the Garver Feed Mill on Madison’s east side. Dress is cocktail attire.