On a hot summer day in Milwaukee, children gathered in the cafeteria of the Aurora Weir Educational Center. Their energy was contagious and they laughed and joked with each other as they indulged in a pizza lunch. The children were part of Project Ujima, an organization that assists victims of violence, and they were in the middle of their six-week summer camp.
This week the kids got a visit from four members of Reach Out Reach In, a summer service program for high school aged youth sponsored by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. During the weeklong program, teens volunteer at various sites throughout the archdiocese, including urban sites such as Sojourner Family Peace Center, Repairers of the Breach and rural sites, including an Ozaukee County family farm. This is the second year Reach Out Reach In has partnered with Project Ujima.
“Project Ujima touched my compassionate side from the very first day,” Alejandro Taylor, 16, said. “It’s one thing to hear about the inner city violence, but it’s another thing to talk to a boy my age who has bullet wounds on his shoulder.”
Taylor, a member of St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point, has participated in Reach Out Reach In for two years. Last year he volunteered to work with kids at Project Ujima; after the program ended, he continued to volunteer throughout the year.
“Project Ujima opened my eyes to the violence that the kids experience and I just didn’t feel comfortable going back home and just going back to my daily life,” said Taylor, a junior at Dominican High School, Whitefish Bay. “I just felt I needed to be there. I’ll do everything I can to be there and for me it wasn’t a choice. It was an expectation for myself.”
When Taylor went home, he told his parents what he experienced.
“I basically told them everything that happened and when I came to the point of telling them the boy showed me his bullet wounds on his shoulder, I broke down in tears,” Taylor said. “I was holding it all in and it just came over me … my understanding is they’re just kids and they deserve a childhood like us.”
There are two groups – teenagers and younger kids. The teenagers went to the gym to play games and the younger kids went to the second floor for arts and crafts.
Each day the kids focused on a different “virtue” and talked about how they live that in their daily lives.
Mary Osep, administrator for Reach Out Reach In and member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Milwaukee, said the virtues are “character qualities” they want the kids of Project Ujima to identify within themselves.
To show the kids how the virtues make an impact on their daily lives, Osep has designed a simple display with an empty bucket and several dozen cups of water. Inside the bucket was a cup labeled “community,” which would eventually be muddied with coffee to represent the negative things in their neighborhood. The kids filled that cup with water from other cups with different virtues labeled on them and diluted the coffee to a more clear liquid.
The goal was to show the kids how everyone can contribute to their community in order to make it a better place.
The kids, many under age 10, rushed into the room and quickly took their seats.
Osep calmed the children down and showed them the display. She told them something about which these kids are all too aware – “bad things happen.” And she dumped some coffee into the “community” cup and the water turned a murky brown.
One by one, the kids poured water into the “community” cup until it overflowed into the bucket and was no longer as dark as it once was.
“The common denominator between all of them is violence,” Toni Rivera, counseling manager for Project Ujima, said. “Even though these kids have been shot and stabbed, a lot of the kids that we work with have trauma that has happened way before they were shot and stabbed. It’s when they’re victimized again through violence that we usually find out about all these other past traumas.”
Rivera said some of the kids haven’t had violence done to them, however they may have lost a parent or sibling to violence.
“What we do is raise the awareness of the kids that are in our program so that they can create a plan to keep themselves safe,” Rivera said. “Giving them the strategies and tools to recognize when they’re in a situation or are approaching a situation where they may be victimized.”
Begun by Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in 1995, Project Ujima has served more than 4,500 kids through the program and annually serves about 300 kids. Since 2004, the organization has served adult victims of violence and works with roughly 500 adults a year.
Many of the participants of Reach Out Reach In haven’t seen the faces of victims they’ve heard about on evening news and the kids at Project Ujima haven’t interacted with kids from the suburbs.
“It really opened up a dialogue of breaking down perceptions of what kids, who are violently injured, look like,” Rivera said. “For our kids that are in (Project) Ujima, breaking down the perception of what kids in the suburbs or well-to-do families look like, and understand in the end they’re just kids, all of them are just kids.”
For Reach Out Reach In participant Catherine Sullivan-Konyn, 16, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, the existence of violence was nothing new, but seeing who it affected had a lasting impact.
“It was hard to grasp the idea that they were victims of violence,” Sullivan said. “These kids are so little and so happy and you would never ever know that these kids have been through that until they tell you…. I just don’t think it’s fair for little kids to go through that.”
Sullivan, like Taylor, volunteered last year and continued to come back throughout the year.
When she went back for the 2012-13 school year at Rufus King High School, Milwaukee, she told her friends what she did but didn’t mention it was Project Ujima. One of her friends suggested she check out Project Ujima and told Sullivan she had been a camper there.
“Then it kind of hit hard,” Sullivan said. “It hit home kind of hard that one of my own friends was part of the program.”
She realized this is the type of work she wants to pursue professionally.
“I saw the face of Jesus in these little kids,” Sullivan said. “My faith tells me when I see God or meet God, you can’t leave them there. They needed me and I need them.”