Catholic Herald Staff
She has a dream to learn how to read. She’s more than 65 years old, living in the Amani neighborhood of Milwaukee, and is a regular at the Dominican Center on Locust Street.
Every week, she works with a volunteer tutor to strengthen her reading comprehension, but mostly, she comes to the Center because it is a safe space, a refuge and a place where dreams are realized.
The 53206 zip code, which houses the Amani neighborhood and Dominican Center, is one of the most segregated and impoverished areas of Milwaukee, and the most incarcerated zip code in America according to a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2013.
Six years later, 53206 still incarcerates the most African American men in the country, and the neighborhoods are in need of repairs and revitalization.
Enter the Dominican Center.
Housed in the old St. Leo’s rectory on Locust Street, this non-profit was started by two Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters nearly 25 years ago. In the beginning, they focused on helping women in the community become homeowners, Executive Director Sr. Patricia Rogers, OP, said.
“I think the most impactful thing that will always be with me, is the first sisters that came here, they just wanted to be present with the women in the area and learn from them,” she said.
Over time, they asked the women what they needed and learned that these women dreamed of earning their GED and understanding how to manage their finances.
These simple dreams catalyzed a change in programming.
While the Center still regularly helps local Amani residents with home repairs, guaranteeing their properties are compliant with city code in partnership with the City Neighborhood Improvement Program and Department of Health, the main attractions are their literacy and GED classes, mostly run by volunteers.
Jody Stewart’s sister volunteered her to be a tutor for the program. After a life-changing first year, she joined the staff and has been with the Center for five years; her name has been changed for the purposes of this story.
“I didn’t know how many people don’t have high school diplomas, how many adults couldn’t read and write, when I started tutoring here,” she said.
She and her student leafed through a Pick ’n Save booklet one day, making a list for a hypothetical dinner, and practiced gathering items and calculating costs. The student was shocked. “You can do that?’” the student asked.
“This is something we so take for granted,” Stewart said. As for the students who come, “they are such smart people. They just don’t have the basics.”
The literacy and GED classes include an initial assessment test and then one-on-one tutoring sessions during the open hours, 9:15 to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday. The volunteers are mostly retired educators, though anyone can participate.
In addition to tutoring, some volunteers lead discussions with the students about managing finances and how to socialize in different professional settings.
“Some people have no other way of getting help and they have no one else to call,” said Stewart. But they know they can always call the Dominican Center in the Amani neighborhood.
The Center’s building has a cozy feel to it. The kitchen counter frequently hosts baked goods from the Sinsinawa Sisters or donated Subway sandwiches. Framed pictures of graduates of the GED program line the hallways.
Their dreams — of learning to read, graduating college, earning a promotion or owning a home— are listed under their photos and capture the essence of the program: success at the Dominican Center is not defined by the number of GED certificates earned, but by the continual transformation of lives in the neighborhood.
“I want people to know that their neighborhood is full of resources. All they have to do is play their part and the neighborhood could change tomorrow. That’s it,” Br. Ricebey, the president of the Amani United Neighborhood, said.
“I just want a more informed community so we can use our collective effort to bring about the change. However it may come, whether it is ‘Rock the Block’ or cleaning up an alley. Whichever way it comes, our neighborhood needs it,” he added.
The neighborhood can also rely on Sr. Rogers and the rest of the staff that create the great culture at the Dominican Center.
“That is why God put us on this earth — to help each other,” Stewart said.
In recent years, Sr. Rogers shared “the archdiocese has been asking, how can we serve this community? And if we build something here, what should it be and what would people want?”
“Which was music to my ears,” Sr. Rogers said. At the Dominican Center, “we are located in the center of 53206 … and we work with the capacity of the community so that they can do these things themselves.”
This is grassroots stuff, where the residents drive change and spark revitalization of their own neighborhoods. This is what 53206 needs. This is what volunteers can be a part of through “Rock the Block.”
“Rock the Block”
A collaborative event with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the Dominican Center, and Habitat for Humanity.
Saturday, Sept. 28
Join the Amani neighborhood community for this city-block style gardening party. Homes on the block will receive landscaping, and families living in the area will have a chance to meet their neighbors and volunteers helping beautify the block as part of a revitalization effort in the Amani neighborhood.