Support centers: Madison’s neighborhood and community centers step up as pandemic drags on

By Nicholas Garton, The Capital Times

Well, that was easy.

That’s what Letesha Nelson thought as she completed a move from Memphis to Madison at the beginning of the year. She moved to town to take over as executive director of the Goodman Community Center on Madison’s east side, replacing Becky Steinhoff, who led the center for 31 years.

But the situation facing neighborhood and community centers in 2021 is anything but easy. In order to pull off a smooth transition into her new role, Nelson knows it will take all of her zeal and optimism to tackle declining revenue streams, safety protocols, pandemic mental health effects and increased demands at the Goodman food pantry.

Like many other community organizations, the Goodman Community Center managed to not just survive a year filled with tumult, it helped the people it serves get through their own struggles.

In an interview earlier this month, Nelson’s energetic voice cut through the dreariness of an ongoing pandemic, racial justice debates, gun violence and a bruising presidential election, not to mention a run of bone-chilling winter weather.

“It was a good, easy transition,” Nelson said of her move. “I was able to ease into it. I never thought I’d be back in Wisconsin! It was no nerves and no stress.”

Nelson spent her first few weeks on the job surveying the scene and making connections. The Madison she arrived in is different than the one she remembers from her Milwaukee childhood. When asked about the gun violence that affects many of the north and east side residents served by the center, Nelson was surprised: “Shooting? In Madison? What?”

“The doors here are not open ‘just because,’” Nelson said. “They’re open to give hope so that the children coming here can see something different than in their corner of the world. I hadn’t heard of all the violence. But this last year was unprecedented with COVID-19 — with the election, with all the men being killed by police officers — and I think people are starting to find their voice around what means a lot to them and how to make a change.”

Staff at Goodman and Madison’s 22 other community and neighborhood centers are on the front lines of dealing with those issues, especially the pandemic’s economic impact. And like professionals in every line of work, they’re innovating to keep up with the pandemic’s shifting demands.

Programs like Goodman’s Girls Inc. and Vera Court Neighborhood Center’s Life As A Boy continue to keep kids engaged, listening to them as they work through personal and academic problems. Lussier Community Education Center on the west side has converted its gym to store necessities for families.

“The community centers spread throughout the city have a direct connection to the children and families in their neighborhoods,” said Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, who helped serve meals at the Goodman Center over the holidays. “They have amazing, creative and caring staff who are able to connect with people, either in person or via Zoom. The centers are, in some cases, one of the few opportunities some families have to access Wi-Fi in a safe, physically distanced environment. I am delighted that the city is able to support them and that we as individuals can do the same.”

For Nelson, the work done by staff at the Goodman Center, located just off of Atwood Avenue at 214 Waubesa St., and other community centers is about stopping and preventing cycles of illiteracy, violence, teen pregnancy and unsafe environments faced by those living in poverty. Read more …