Story and Photo by Ellen C. Warren

Seven years ago Mark Thomas saw an ad for a national all-volunteer organization called Rebuilding Together. They offer free home repairs for lowincome elderly and disabled homeowners and families with children, especially if the children have special needs. He called the number and found that they were very interested in starting a chapter in Milwaukee. The group that had been here had dissolved, and the need was great.

He held a meeting at the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce. The meeting was very well-attended, and the Milwaukee Chapter of Rebuilding Together was launched. Several people who volunteered to serve on the board worked for Milwaukee County. They helped identify four houses that Rebuilding Together worked on that first year.

Then things got complicated. Some members lost their jobs with the County and were no longer interested in continuing with the group. Mark missed a meeting and the remaining members considered disbanding the chapter.

That is, unless Mark agreed to be president.

They let him know what they’d decided in his absence. “I really wasn’t looking to be in charge,” he explained, “but I didn’t want to see it go down.” So he agreed.

They had lost all the leadership. “So, we pretty much had to start from scratch,” Mark says. That was six years ago. He’s still president.

“We have over 500 volunteers,” Mark proudly announces. This year, they’re expecting to do 18 houses. Lately, their average has been about 15 per year.

“We did one in Riverwest a couple years ago, and another one last year,” he said. “This year, I didn’t push it,” he continued, “but I was hoping that the neighborhood would get together and find me more houses…. I’d really like to see something in my own neighborhood.” The organization is not lacking for applications. One hundred and fifty or more is normal in a year.

“A big part of what we do is try to help [disabled clients] be comfortable in their homes,” Mark explained. “We partner with the occupational therapy department at UWM. Students come in for a learning exercise. They work with clients to determine what their needs are, and then they write the specifications for us.” (If you’d like to learn more about Rebuilding Together, please see the info following this article.)

Mark is a home inspector with 25 years of construction experience. He began working as a carpenter while attending college, where he received Associate Degrees in both Civil Engineering Technology and Business Administration. After he’d “learned how buildings are put together,” he designed and constructed commercial buildings. Presently, he inspects commercial buildings as well as homes and offers his services as a building consultant. He is also the founder of the Wisconsin Association of Home Inspectors and an instructor at MATC.

Recently he partnered with a fellow Riverwester, Greg Golimowski of Right Remodeling, on a rehab of a 4-plex on Bremen Street. Mark describes Greg as a “fabulous, detail-oriented, perfectionist kind of carpenter.”

“The building is well-constructed and stunning,” Mark explained, “but it hadn’t been maintained for a really long time.” They stripped seven layers of paint off the woodwork, redid the electrical and the plumbing, and did all the rest of the work involved in returning the brick structure to its original beauty.

Mark originally landed in Riverwest in 1979 after a four-year stint in the Navy. He traded in his childhood northwest-side neighborhood (“That’s so boring over there!”) for an apartment above what is presently Nessun Dorma. A year later he bought a house on Weil where he married and had his first child, a daughter. Around 1985, they sold that house and bought the one farther north on Weil where Mark presently lives. They had a second daughter in that house, and in 1990 he and his wife moved to Washington Heights where his third child, a son, was born. Seven years later they moved to Bay View.

The multi-family on Weil became home again a couple years ago after he and his wife divorced. He presently has his 21-year-old daughter, Noelle, and 15-year-old son, Andre, living with him. Andre attends the High School of the Arts, majoring in visual art. Noelle is a student at MATC in liberal arts and will continue on at UWM where she’ll decide her major. At this time, her dad says with a smile, “It changes pretty regularly.”

The family is rounded out by a shih tzu-mix dog named Peppy. Mark happily accompanies his pup to the riverside fields and trails a couple times a day. (He even knows Marianne and Wendy – last month’s Neighbor Spotlight!)

What does Mark particularly enjoy about living in Riverwest, besides the people and the neighbors, some of whom he’s known for twenty years?

The music!

“I like to go out to see live music,” Mark exclaimed, “and I don’t think there’s anywhere in the city with a greater concentration of live venues.”

“Really, anywhere,” he continued. “Even if you go to some of the cities that are famous for music…go down to Beale Street in Memphis…there’s a lot of bars with music, but I don’t think there’s any more than in Riverwest. And we’ve got a good variety, too. You go to Beale St., it’s all blues. Whereas here, there’s all kinds of stuff. Most of the venues that have live music, I’ve been there.”

Note from the writer: And if you can’t find him there or at the park, try Nessun Dorma!

Rebuilding Together’s mission is to preserve and revitalize houses and communities, assuring that low-income homeowners, from the elderly and disabled to families with children, live in warmth, safety, and independence. In partnership with communities, their goal is to make a sustainable impact. Applicants must be single family homeowners in Milwaukee or Waukesha County (sorry no duplexes). They must be current on their taxes or on a payment plan. They must also be over 60 years of age and low-income OR a person living with a disability and low-income. To learn more, to volunteer, to apply for help or to recommend a homeowner for consideration, go to, or call 414-319-9828.

Riverwest Currents online edition – March, 2007