by Tiffany Donald
In her role as director of COA’s Adult Basic Education/GED program, longtime Riverwest resident Wendy Green has the important job of demonstrating to her young students that life can change in positive and unexpected ways. Her journey is a great example of this, and her devotion to the teenagers who come to her looking for a second chance at education is yielding real rewards.
Her story starts in Minster Lovell, a small village and civilparish in England, about 15 miles west of Oxford and 70 miles northwest ofLondon. There, in 1965, Wendycontemplated accepting an invitation to visit her younger sister in the UnitedStates.
“My sister was homesick and really needed to see a family member,” Wendyrecalls. It turned out she was in need of some comfort, too. “I was 20 yearsold and had just broken off a marriage engagement.”
Wendy thought staying with her sister for a little while in the Stateswould give her space to clear her thoughts and think things through a bit. Butit was only supposed to be for a visit. “Moving here was a temporaryassignment,” she smiles.
Her first impressions of Milwaukee were not good: “It was too hot and it smelled funny!” she laughs, remembering herfirst encounter with the odor of the breweries that still thrived back then.“But it was clean!”
When Wendy first moved to Riverwest in 1975, the community was mostlyinhabited by retirees and hippies. “There were so many gardens, and as a youngwoman I never really felt I had to worry to walk down my street no matter whattime of day it was,” she says.
Unfortunately, by 1989, when Wendy bought her first house in Riverwest,there was a strong sense of separation between the elders and teens in thecommunity. Gatherings and festivals that once attracted families were graduallybeing replaced by events that seemed to end in gunshots.
“I remember an art party that had been so wonderful,” she says. “So manyadults and children were out having fun, and the kids were all showing theirdrawings. Next thing I know, I looked around and everyone – including thechildren – were running for safety and dropping to the ground. I didn’t knowwhat was going on. A few teens saw me looking bewildered and screamed at me,informing to get down. There was a drive-by shooting going on.”
In the late 1980’s and 90’s, Milwaukeepolice and several other law enforcement agencies executed major gang and drugbusts in Milwaukee, including many in Riverwest. The arrest of many major gangmembers and criminals helped to eliminate the fear, anger, and intolerance thatseemed to loom in the community.
“Ithink the changes that were slowly made had to do with the long existingneighbors in the community who wouldn’t give up and leave. I believe it had alot to do with their ‘call for action’ pleas during the block watch meetingsthat the Riverwest neighbors held around that time,” Wendy recalls. “Many of uscontinued to host community gatherings and block parties and events in the midstof it all. We felt like enough was enough!”
Wendyand many of her neighbors were determined to clean up Riverwest and direct itback to the secure and welcoming community it once was. Thanks to theirdetermination, Riverwest was set on the encouraging path it’s on today.
“Now Inotice young college students of all shades on my block, people are stillorganizing gardens – there seem to be gardens everywhere!” she says, recallingthe gardens she first observed in the neighborhood over 20 years ago.
By thetime Riverwest began to take a turn for the better, Wendy’s commitment toimproving the quality of life in the community and for the young people she wasencountering had gone beyond activism. In 1985, she was considering attendingUWM but could not get her transcripts from England. It was suggested that shefind a GED program, and she found one that another agency offered in COA’sbuilding. With a natural instinct for working with teenagers, she graduallytransitioned from student to instructor.
Like the short trip to the Stateswhich turned into her new home, what might have been a short-term job became acalling. This year, Wendy celebrates her twenty-fifth year working with GEDstudents at COA. When she started, she taught 8 to 10 students a day. In 2010,that number is 35 to 50.
“COA’s GED program is the only agency of its kind inMilwaukee to accept 16- and 17-years-olds,” she says. “The kids I work with haveall dropped out of school for different reasons and have all decided to comeback for different reasons. It’s as if life has gotten in the way, and I feelas if it’s my job to help them weave their way through.”
Under Wendy’s guidance, the program has flourished. In the past nine years, theGED program has increased from 90 students a year to more than 400. In additionto crucial academic help, COA’s Adult Basic Education/GED classes includeweekly workshops in parenting skills, sexual health, substance abusecounseling, anger management, and conflict resolution. Of the 12 students whoearned their GED last year, six are now
employed,four are continuing their education, and one has joined the military.
“I never have a slow day,” she smiles when asked about the satisfactionsof her job. “My day is never the same two days in the row.
“I love the fact that COA provides this opportunity for at-risk youth andadults, and I love my Riverwest neighbors,” she says. “It’s been a very happy25 years. I can honestly say that!”