MILWAUKEE – With the intent of meeting the needs of the surrounding community, parishioners at St. Catherine of Alexandria met recently to discuss issues on the city’s northwest side.

St. Catherine human concerns committee hosted a panel discussion Sept. 17. On hand were guest speakers who provide services to area residents. Each speaker offered insight into an area hit hard a decade ago with the closing of Northridge Mall – the one-time economic powerhouse just north of St. Catherine.

Judy Dollhausen, St. Catherine parishioner and member of the human concerns committee, said the discussion was the first in a series of steps designed to create outreach opportunities.

“We can go forward and impact the community in a really meaningful way,” said Lynne LeMense, another parishioner serving on the committee.

Jerome O’Leary, captain of Milwaukee Police Department’s District 4 station, told the gathering that District 4 serves most of the city’s northwest side and has some of the widest ranging racial and socioeconomic variances within the municipal borders.

Since Northridge closed in 2002, several reasons have been floated for its demise, including crime at the former North Meadows housing complex located just west of the mall property. North Meadows has since been renamed the Woodlands, and the property has been converted to owner-occupied condominiums.

O’Leary said District 4 has allocated significant resources toward turning around the Woodlands site. Several police officers are stationed exclusively in the Woodlands area as part of the department’s citywide community outreach initiative.

“This is about forging relationships,” O’Leary said. “We work for you guys, and you guys pay a lot of money for the community services you receive.”

The good news, O’Leary said, is crime is down significantly in the area. While there are still reported incidents of home and vehicle break-ins, some of the more serious crimes have nearly evaporated from the area.

“We don’t have the random violence associated with drug dealing,” O’Leary said. “As a police agency, we’re not perfect. But we have been utilizing our data, and we’re creating partnerships as we try and improve things.”

While circumstances have improved around the Woodlands, O’Leary said new scenarios have arisen from the revamp in recent years. Statistically, the development – bound by North 91st Street and North 98th Street, just north of West Brown Deer Road – has the highest concentration of minors than anywhere else in the state.

Eric Gass, research and policy director at the Milwaukee Health Department, discussed some of the ways the agency provides services to residents. The overarching goal, he said, is to keep the nearly 600,000 people living in the city healthy, day in and out.

Like many governing agencies, Gass said the city’s health department has been hit by dwindling resources when it comes to finances and manpower. One of the agency’s recent efforts has revolved around the much-publicized co-sleeping deaths that have occurred between mothers and infants.

“The infant mortality rate in Milwaukee is twice as high as the national average,” Gass said.

For the city’s lower income population, Gass said the agency attempts to reach out in whatever way possible, offering a range of services that include workshops to help people learn important life skills and educate on the importance of good nutrition.

Michelle Paris, principal of Northwest Catholic School, discussed some of the trials and triumphs students and faculty face. The K-8 school, with an enrollment of about 410, houses students at Our Lady of Good Hope and St. Bernadette parishes, both in Milwaukee. St. Catherine School merged in July 2009 with the other two parishes’ school to form Northwest Catholic.

Between 90 and 95 percent of Northwest Catholic’s students receive free or reduced lunches – an indicator of the prevalence of poverty in the area. Children go through a number of issues, including anxiety and, at times, mental illness.

“We have students who don’t know where their next meal will be coming from,” Paris said. “Some have parents who have been or are in jail. Others have been involved in drugs.”

Because of the wide-ranging challenges facing some of the students, Paris said, “Community outreach is an area we’d really liked to expand on.”

While much of the panel discussion centered around working to stem the tide of poverty in the area, a portion also was devoted to another underserved population: the elderly.

Maureen Conaty, a St. Catherine parishioner, shared information on the Granville Interfaith organization that provides a variety of programs and services to the older adult population.

Conaty said the goal behind Granville Interfaith is to give older adults an opportunity to live in their homes for as long as possible. But this means chipping in and providing such services as snow shoveling, yard work and periodic visitations from volunteers.

“There are some very real and practical things that the interfaith organization could use help with to keep people in their homes,” Conaty said.

According to St. Catherine parish director, Deborah Hintz, the information gathered at the meeting will help the parish focus its outreach in the neighborhood.

“The meeting was only a first step,” she wrote in the Sept. 23 St. Catherine parish bulletin. “The human concerns committee will now take what we heard and continue to discuss a possible direction…. I am confident the plans that will eventually come from this endeavor will bear much fruit.”