Rev. J. Anthony Phillips, pastor at Blessed Deliverance Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee, believes that the village concept of caring for all children in the community has been lost.
He also believes that the Buddy Program at St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care in St. Francis can help restore that village.
The service learning program for “at risk” youths between 11 and 15, pairs inner city students with clients of St. Ann Center and Milwaukee area adult centers for six to eight weeks, challenging them to interact and work with people they may perceive as different.
The result: Older adults share their life lessons and students learn life skills to help them succeed while furthering St. Ann’s mission of providing service to the underserved in the community and breaking down generational barriers.
Using a holistic approach
Rev. Phillips, vice president of human resources and administration at St. Ann and director of the Buddy Program since 2006, said the program uses a holistic approach to prevent children from getting into bad situations.
He uses the phrase “at risk” because it’s the global term, though he doesn’t like to describe the children who come into the program from Milwaukee and surrounding areas that way.
Their backgrounds and family dynamics are diverse – some come from homes with both parents, some live with one parent because the other is incarcerated or deceased, and others live with grandparents because both parents are incarcerated or deceased. But Rev. Phillips reminds the youth that people “are all ‘at risk’ of something” regardless of their backgrounds.
“I don’t want to give them the perception that because they come from the inner city that they are, (that) everything’s terrible, so I let them know that we are all ‘at risk’ of something,” he said, noting that every child within the age range, about 100 each year, who submits an application and parent permission form is accepted during any of the three sessions, held in summer, fall and spring.
Program founded by Sr. Edna
Rev. Phillips recruits students for the program, founded in the late 80s by Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Edna Lonergan, president of St. Ann Center, each spring and fall during visits to four Milwaukee schools: Fernwood Montessori School, Milwaukee College Preparatory School (the Academy of Learning and Leadership closed), Central City Cyberschool and Hope Prima School.
“So, they come from all backgrounds; some are from private schools, some are from public schools, some are from charter schools, and the hope is that they’ll get in and see each other and learn from one another,” said Rev. Phillips, explaining that the program accepts children at age 11.
“We’re trying to counter that and start as early as we possibly can to get them to start thinking about doing good things for other people, giving back, learning how to prepare yourself for job training or whatever it is,” he said.
Xiomara Diaz, 13, of Cudahy, is participating in the program for the third time. She’s helped at St. Ann Center and Kelly Senior Center, but this year she works at Wilson Park Senior Center serving lunch, helping older adults with arts and crafts, or performing maintenance type duties like cleaning the tables.
“I don’t feel as shy anymore like talking to other people,” she said of what’s changed since her first year.
“It makes me realize I can help other people and not just be so selfish or just think about myself – I have to think about others,” said Diaz, who hopes her work with older adults will also change any negative perceptions they might have of youth.
Focus on building relationships
Though Rev. Phillips said the program competes for funding with other youth programs like the Boys and Girls Clubs, it’s unique because it combines generations.
“We focus on building or bridging that gap, and building relationships that last throughout the years,” Rev. Phillips told your Catholic Herald from his office on the second floor of St. Ann Center Monday, July 16, while 24 students learned about budgeting in a conference room down the hall.
“In addition to that, we don’t just give them fun things to do … we try to give them things that will make them better and will empower them to live the kind of life that they want to live, so hence we’re giving them job training, budget training. We’re giving them spiritual formation training so that they can focus on the whole self – so it’s a holistic ministry and you just don’t see many other programs that are doing that.”
The program has affected students’ lives in a positive way, leading to increased grade point averages, better attitudes and even a change in how they see their futures, according to Rev. Phillips.
“One of my more touching stories is we’ve had young people that (after those field trips) say, ‘I know what I’m going to do now; I’m going to go to college,’” he said.
Stipend from ‘tender-hearted’ director
That Monday, training for week three of the program began at 9 a.m. The program’s summer intern, Fiona Frimpong, a student from Ghana, West Africa, studying political science and sociology at Cardinal Stritch University, passed out packets with the budgeting lesson. They did quick re-introductions and talked about their first weeks before moving into the lesson. Frimpong told the students about the $25 stipend they’d receive sometime that week.
According to Rev. Phillips, the stipend gives youth who may not otherwise have money a chance to go to a movie or buy some snacks because he has a “tender” heart for young people who may not have money.
“The main message for them is not to do things always for money. We want them to really do it because you sincerely care about someone else and we want them to sincerely be able to look past people’s disabilities or their challenges that they have physically or cognitively…” Rev. Phillips said, noting they’ll receive a second stipend at the end of the program.
“We want them to have a sense of integrity and have a sense of just mutual care for human beings, so that’s the real drive behind it, and have them understand that if you can get money out of what you do, that’s wonderful – but you really want to do it because you sincerely care about other people.”
Some have fear of elderly
Frimpong said she learns about the students’ experiences and fears of working with older adults.
“Some of the kids are scared to be with older people because they know sometimes it’s difficult, especially when somebody has dementia or they have like some kind of mental disability or something like that,” Frimpong said. “It’s difficult for kids to relate to them because they don’t know what they’re going through….”
When Rev. Phillips popped into the classroom for a few minutes mid-morning to see how the previous week had gone for the children, one boy described his experience with an elderly woman as “weird.”
“I don’t know what this weird experience he had with her (was),” Rev. Phillips said. “I think that it may just have been something with her age or a disability, but when you redirect them and let them know what they’re supposed to be about, you really do see them lose their fear of one another, lose their fear of, if it’s someone who has a disability, or lose the fear of someone just being older than they are, so it’s beautiful.”
Frimpong said the notebooks tell a different story than the classroom discussion where some kids might be too shy to speak.
“So you had one of the kids saying it was kind of ‘weird’ … but in the books some of them talked about how they overcame that kind of fear because they realized that (the adults) ‘They’re just like me. I would also grow older someday.’”
Melissa Owen, activity specialist at the Aurora Adult Day Center, said she encourages the students, Geiontae Glosson, 13, and his brother, Geiontee, 11, who are working there this summer, to teach the older adults.
“One thing I’ve seen as a benefit is the older adults are teaching something to the younger people and then they’re teaching them, so that’s been really great,” said Owen, a member of the Intergenerational Council Meeting.
Program takes him out of comfort zone
Geiontae said he joined the Buddy program to overcome his shyness.
“I wanted to get a chance to see like what my mom (a nurse) does,” said Geiontae, who attends Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, “and I wanted to like learn how to like get out of my comfort zone and how to talk to other people, people older than me.”
By his second week Geiontae’s worries of being shy faded away – he said he’d already played pool and bingo, learned how to play spades, and made friends with “Earl,” who talked to him “a lot.”
The boys moved from observing four people playing spades, to a larger area for several games of bingo before starting a game of pool with Alvin Ellison.
“Yeah, we engage in all activities that we do and we have fun doing them with them,” Ellison said, noting that he’s played darts with the boys and talked about everything from sports to the weather.
“I hope they’re just good with people (and) have fun with people,” he said.
The Brewers Community Foundation supported the Buddy Program with a $5,000 grant earlier this year, but Rev. Phillips said the program needs to continue to raise funds for the $180,000 budget – which includes his salary, the cost of a driver or assistant to pick up and drop off the students at the centers during the week or to furnish the cost of bus tickets, two field trips – one to a college and one to a business, student stipends, materials, paper, backpacks filled with the first three weeks’ worth of school supplies, the awards program and prizes.
Other supporters have included Milwaukee County Commission on Aging, which gives the St. Ann Center access to the centers including Clinton Rose Senior Center, Kelly Senior Center, McGovern Park Senior Center, Washington Park Senior Center and Wilson Park Senior Center, through Interfaith Adult Programs; the University of Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute; Delaware-based Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities; and Cardinal Stritch University, which furnished a stipend to pay Frimpong, according to Rev. Phillips, also a product of Stritch.
“We run really thin but it’s worth it,” he said.
His hope for the program is that more people will invest in it so more children and adults can have the opportunity to participate and interact.
“I really believe that if we can get people to transfer knowledge between each other, it will make a impact on the reduction in crime, the reduction on joblessness, the reduction in people fulfilling their personal dreams, whatever they may be,” Rev. Phillips said. “I believe in the village concept and I believe that we’ve lost a part of that in that you just didn’t care about your own children, but you cared about everyone in the community and so that’s my great hope is that we can restore the village.”