Driving through the South Side of Milwaukee, Ramón Candelaria slows his 1996 Nissan in front of an apartment building. “Right there, in that building was the first place where my friends and I experienced the tragedy of a homicide,” says the 35-year-old executive director of the Latino Community Center. “A lady was shot and killed. I remember kids running over to my house to tell me. There was a big commotion before the police finally came.”
The neighborhood, rife with street gangs and crime, remains rough, but the Latino Community Center, located just two blocks from the site of that murder, has become an oasis of hope, attracting a daily average of 700 mostly Hispanic and African-American kids. On the corner of National Avenue and 14th Street, in a former industrial warehouse, preteens and teens rebuild a computer through trial and error, learn the advantages of drug-free living and sexual abstinence in a “Baby, Think It Over” class, and practice a break dance routine to be performed during a time out at a Milwaukee Bucks pro basketball game. But mostly, the kids just hang out at a safe, civil, and civilizing place.
This center of inspiration nearly died itself. In 2002, a horrific scandal rocked the center. Its founding director had fathered twin boys with a 19-year-old woman who had come to the center as a welfare-to-work recipient seeking help. Making matters worse, the woman killed one of her three-week-old twins and injured another. The director resigned, and funders backed away.
Of course, failure is not rare among nonprofits that work in neighborhoods like this. The challenges are great: because nothing less than changing lives will do, it’s not easy for grantees to succeed, and because progress can be hard to measure, nonprofits that are ineffective or corrupt can hide. Many donors avoid the field because of these challenges. Others fund unwisely, without insisting on accountability and achievement.
The Right Man
With those classic pitfalls in mind, some clear-sighted donors stepped in to save the Latino Community Center. They realized that a crucial element in the center’s recovery would be hiring the right kind of leadership because groups like these—much like K-12 schools—need strong and effective leaders to reach the citizens they serve.
The center was nearly $500,000 in debt with the bank threatening to foreclose on the mortgage when Rick Wiederhold, president of the Elizabeth A. Brinn Foundation, turned to a local youth worker and told him that if he were willing to take over as executive director, Wiederhold might be able to recruit more funders.
“Nine out of 10 people in my life said, ‘Don’t do it,’” recalls Candelaria. “But I did it anyway.”
Candelaria had a long history with nonprofits. His first taste of the impact a nonprofit can have came early, as a participant, then a summer worker, and eventually, at age 15, assistant director of youth programs at the Milwaukee Christian Center. As Kathi Boyce of the Milwaukee Christian Center recalls, the South Side had fewer Latinos back then, and Candelaria was known as Raymond, not Ramón.
“People would call and ask to work with him,” says Boyce, Candelaria’s first mentor. “Word on the street was he would go above and beyond, going to kids’ houses if he could help. Parents would call and request that Raymond talk to their son if he was getting involved in gangs.”
It seemed as if Candelaria had found his niche, but a decision by his mother to leave Milwaukee nearly changed everything. Soon, at 18, he was heading to Puerto Rico to live with a woman he describes as a Latina Mother Teresa, a frail saint in her seventies who, though she had few resources herself, went to the streets to help those most in need with love, compassion, and whatever food she could muster. That woman was Inocencia Candelaria-Viruet, his grandmother.
“She didn’t wait for people to come to her. She went to them,” says Candelaria. “I would see all these people she was working with. I saw the ability of someone to bring joy and a sense of peace to someone who was down and out and struggling. I started to think this is something I could do; I could serve other people like my grandmother did. Nothing felt better, not a new pair of shoes, nothing, than to serve other people.”
Candelaria earned about $50 a game playing Class B, then Class A, baseball in Puerto Rico. He accepted a baseball scholarship at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but after his junior year returned to Milwaukee for the summer and decided to stay for good. At one point, he worked four jobs at the same time to try to make ends meet. He also took classes at the University of Wisconsin. After graduation, he landed a job, again dealing with kids, with Milwaukee County’s first-time juvenile offender program.
“What’s up, bro’,” says Gary Graika, the Latino Community Center’s Milwaukee Violence Free Zone director and gang specialist, a burly man who walks the streets for several hours every night with Candelaria and whatever city leader, from the mayor on down, wants to join them. Graika greets Candelaria, his boss, with a kiss on the cheek. It’s a Latino thing, and a staff requirement, to greet fellow staffers with a touch as a physical sign of connection and unity.
Of course, the man who has infused all this togetherness into a center that was debt-ridden, rundown, and tarnished by scandal is a product of the community himself. Instead of expecting the state capital in Madison or the federal government in Washington to provide all the answers to problems in the South Side of Milwaukee, Candelaria has tapped into his own experience and that of the community he knows so well. The result is credibility, changed lives, and a slightly more civil society.
“This organization is very effective helping young people stay on the right track and getting kids who have jumped off the track back on it,” says Wiederhold, whose Brinn Foundation has awarded annual grants of more than $300,000 to the center in recent years. “The objective is to help these kids to contribute to the community, rather than extract from it through crime.”
One reason it works, says Wiederhold, is because Candelaria passes “the zip code test,” and everyone knows it. “He’s not someone like me coming in from the suburbs and just staying from 9 to 5,” says Wiederhold. “He’s here all day and walking the streets well into the night.”
“I know this neighborhood well,” says Candelaria, who at a muscular 184 pounds is just a tad heavier than the days when he was a star second baseman. “I know the schools. I know the environment. I used to be a part of breaking windows in this neighborhood. Now I’m a part of fixing them, and keeping them fixed.”
Donors Take Notice
That leadership has attracted investment from outside the neighborhood, including the Bradley Foundation, a risk-taking grantmaker located in the historic Lion House on Milwaukee’s East Side, just off Lake Michigan. Bradley took a gamble on Candelaria and his center with a $50,000 grant in 2002. They now enthusiastically contribute $100,000 a year, trusting Candelaria and his board to spend the money where it’s most needed, without restrictions.
“We support the Latino Community Center not just for what it does, for what programs it offers kids, but for what it is—a gathering place in that neighborhood to broker relationships, some of which are fairly conflicted,” says Alicia L. Manning, Bradley’s director of new citizenship programs.
The money has helped fuel expansion from a staff of five to 72 (combined full-time and part-time). Hardly satisfied, Candelaria has launched a $2.8 million capital campaign—not to build a pool or gymnasium, but to transform the center into a high-tech, high-energy hub of education and practical training.
“You can talk about my being a person from the ’hood, serving the ’hood,” says Candelaria. “But the majority of the funding comes from outside the ’hood. What has been effective has been the outside and the inside coming together to save lives.”
In 2002, Candelaria’s first year, the budget was $220,000. It’s now $1.4 million, with 69 different private and public funding organizations, including We Energies, the trade name of Wisconsin Electric Power Company and Wisconsin Gas LLC; Miller Brewing Company; Rockwell International; Harley-Davidson; the Forest County Potawatomi Foundation; and Milwaukee Public Schools.
Mary Gissal, director of Milwaukee Public Schools’ Division of Recreation and Community Services, says the school system grants the community center $200,000 per academic year because it realizes it can’t come close to meeting all of the needs of children attending nearby Kagel Elementary and South Division High School. “Ramón and his staff are there all the time, working with the principals, with the staff, and being connected to the community,” said Gissal. “We didn’t see that before Ramón came.”
Raejean Kanter is executive director of the Forest County Potawatomi Community Foundation, whose primary focus is alleviating poverty. The Potawatomi are an Indian tribe that own a casino less than a mile from the Latino Community Center.
The community foundation has been a long-time supporter of the center, even before Candelaria arrived. The difference he has made, says Kanter, is palpable. “I was there the other day, and about 25 kids came up to me and introduced themselves by name,” says Kanter. “Nobody was around telling them they had to do this. This was obviously the training of the leaders at the center. It was about showing respect.”
And it’s not just the children who are changing. Through classes that teach computer skills and help school dropouts earn their GED, adults in the community are also creating new opportunities for themselves.
Looking to the Future
To hear Candelaria speak, he has only just begun. On a large and vacant second-floor room in his center, he hurriedly walks on hardwood floors where a few decades ago Polish and German immigrants operated sewing machines in a garment factory. Here, says Candelaria, he will build a Latino Technology Center where up to 125 at-risk children will learn skills that will make them employable in an information society.
“We can utilize this facility to train kids on the present and future of technology,” says Candelaria, who was selected to attend a three-week course in nonprofit management at Harvard Business School last year. “This will be a place where the elementary school student, the middle school student, the high school student, and even the parent can come and be trained.”
Such a vision might seem far-fetched, if the Latino Community Center were not able to demonstrate results in the last four years. But Candelaria, who is pursuing a master’s in business administration at Milwaukee’s Cardinal Stritch University, is almost obsessive about measuring outcomes. He rattles off statistics as if they were batting averages:
· In tests of math, reading, and writing, 82 percent of children in the center’s community learning program increased two grade levels in a single year.
· The vast majority (80 percent) attend the center at least half the days it is open, showing that once children visit, they usually return.
· In 2004, the center helped 26 homeless families get off the street and into housing, a car, and a job.
“Many people get into this field with passion,” says Candelaria. “But passion doesn’t manage your organization as a business.” That’s why he attended Harvard and is working on that MBA, and why he consults with leaders like Robert L. Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington, D.C.
“It’s pretty extraordinary what Candelaria and his staff have already done,” says Manning of the Bradley Foundation. “He took an organization that was a terrible example of what happens to corrupt nonprofit organizations. Then he and the staff built relationships with the community in that neighborhood, the schools in that neighborhood, the police who patrol that neighborhood, and regained the trust of all the people they needed.”
Candelaria walks outside the center to a wall where he has given former graffiti artists a brick canvas. One message, embedded in a mural of vibrant yellow, crimson, and royal blue says, “THE INDUSTRY IS GONE BUT WE’RE STILL HERE.” Candelaria walks a few feet toward a small patch of soil next to an alley where children have planted tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce. The garden is modest, but it’s beginning to grow in a neighborhood where the only thing going up for many years was the murder rate.
Mark O’Keefe is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.