- Associated Press - Saturday, July 29, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - For Nicole Sponseller, a getaway to Milwaukee has typically meant trips to the zoo, museums or maybe a Milwaukee Brewers game at Miller Park.

The 85-mile trip from Madison’s west side has never ended in one of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods.

Sponseller, 15, a soon-to-be junior at West High School, is part of a youth group from Asbury United Methodist Church on Madison’s far west side that spent a recent week scraping, painting, climbing ladders and immersing themselves in a part of Wisconsin that many try to avoid.

The neighborhood is just a short drive north of Sherman Park, where less than a year ago a police shooting killed a 25-year-old black man and resulted in violence with protesters marching and ultimately burning and looting businesses. The neighborhood is also light years from the middle-class world in which members of the youth group call home.

“I just want to know that we’re making a difference,” Sponseller told the Wisconsin State Journal . She’s come to Milwaukee County in the past for the Wisconsin State Fair and visits to the Milwaukee Art Museum. “This is a side of Milwaukee people don’t see. It’s a great city, but there’s also a lot of hardships.”

I’m quite familiar with Asbury’s youth group. Our family has been a member at the church since the late 1990s. My son, Zeke, has been on three youth mission trips while in high school, and my daughter, Leah, was on her second trip when she joined the group on this year’s trip. Being in Milwaukee provided a convenient opportunity to drive over for a day and see the group in action in one of the poorest cities in America.

Last summer, the group bused to Moore, Oklahoma, where in 2013 an F5 tornado killed 24 people, injured 377 others and destroyed large swaths of the city, including two schools. In the summer of 2015, the youths flew to the Bahamas, where instead of lying on a beach or snorkeling; they painted and remodeled homes, and did landscaping work. And in 2014, it was a trip to Memphis, Tennessee. They ate barbecue but also toiled in the summer heat and humidity, roofing homes for residents in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

This year’s Milwaukee trip for the 21 youths and four adult leaders was really no different from the other trips, only there’s a connection knowing that the people being helped are just a few ZIP codes away. They root for the Green Bay Packers, listen to Bob Uecker, know about fish fries and aren’t stumped when asked about a bubbler.

“Being so close to home, hopefully that will help them see that there’s need everywhere and you don’t need to go a long distance to be a change agent,” said Carter Baldwin, 32, Asbury’s director of youth and young adult ministries. “The hope is that you see those inherent walls just come down whether it be racial divides or economic divides or social divides. They’re all just coming down because we just want to be part of the community.”

The Milwaukee trip was organized through Madison-based Next Step Ministries. The nonprofit was founded in 2007 by two college students and their youth pastor and now helps coordinate thousands of youths from around the country to work in areas of need. This year, Next Step is sending 6,400 youths on trips to 16 communities, including Los Angeles; Braxton County, West Virginia; San Augustine, Texas; Joplin, Missouri; Haiti and Guatemala.

Another of Next Step’s destinations this year is Madison, where teams of youths throughout the summer are working on construction and community development projects. Those include work aimed at reducing homelessness around the area, as well as physical improvement projects and work with at-risk youths in the Verona School District.

The Asbury youths were divided into three teams, two of which were assigned to work on properties of twin brothers Dwight and Shelby Blalock. They live on different streets but are actually only a short walk away from each other, thanks to an alley that splits the blocks. The alley provided a convenient walkway for the two teams of youths to stay connected and to interact with the children of the neighborhood. The children would occasionally join in with scraping and painting work, but also played catch with a football with the Madison youths while the soundtrack from the musical “Hamilton” blasted away in the background.

Ryan Van Gilder, 17, who will be a senior this fall at Middleton High School where he plays the cello, was armed with a scraper and sandpaper as he worked on removing flaking paint around a door frame from Dwight Blalock’s bungalow.

“There’s a lot of bumps and a lot of irregularities so we really have to go over all of it,” said Van Gilder, who was on the Oklahoma trip last year. “It doesn’t really seem all that different. We’re just coming out here to do work and to help people, which is the same thing we did last year. We just had a shorter bus ride (this year), which is nice.”

Emma Cullen, 15, will be a sophomore at Memorial High and is active in forensics and drama. She wore a protective mask and a sunhat while scraping paint from a window frame. She had been well aware of the issues facing Milwaukee’s inner city, but seeing it first hand, and not in a newspaper or television screen, further opened her eyes to the inequities in the state’s largest city.

“I knew it was poor,” Cullen said. “But once I got here, I definitely had a different perspective of Milwaukee.”

The Asbury youths were housed in a church on Good Hope Road that all summer is providing housing for youth groups from around the country. Joining the Asbury youths were groups from Ohio, Michigan and Nebraska, with some of those working on siding a house just a few doors away from the Asbury work sites.

At Shelby Blalock’s home, the work was focused on a garage in the alley. As Wes Carpenter, Alec Inman and Hayden Van Gilder scraped paint from the north side of the garage, the backs of the 15-year-old sophomores from Middleton High were to a car four feet away on the neighboring lot. The tan Kia Soul’s front bumper was partially detached, the back window shattered and the right rear wheel flat. The passenger side also had three bullet holes.

“These trips are always eye-opening,” said Dave Stettner, a meteorologist at UW-Madison and one of the adult leaders who was on his 13th mission trip. “And it’s only an hour and a half down the road. Out of all 25 of us, every one of us had been to Milwaukee. None of us had been to the areas we’ve been driving to and from to get to the work sites.”

The third Asbury team of seven youths found itself in more familiar surroundings but exposed to a ministry that is doing God’s work for Adullam Outreach, a ministry created in 2010 to empower struggling neighborhoods. Steve Grabosch, Adullam’s founder, has ignored his yard in the Milwaukee suburb of Germantown, so Asbury youths spent part of their week doing landscaping for Grabosch, who at one time was in a heavy metal Christian band but still sports long blond dreadlocks and drives a motorcycle.

The team also worked on a street in north Milwaukee, pulling weeds and mowing lawns for Genesis in Milwaukee, a support organization for those recently released from prison. The work site stood in contrast to a tour of the city earlier in the week that showed off some of the more well-off neighborhoods and familiar sites most of the youth see on trips to the city with their families.

“It just feels like the city is ignored in some parts,” said Jacob Karll, 16, a junior at West High School. “The roads are worse, there’s trash everywhere. It’s sad.”


Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, https://www.madison.com/wsj

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