Agape center feeds, assists Milwaukeeans on city's northwest side

June 15, 2012

Facility focuses on kids, seniors and the working poor


MILWAUKEE — Mary Killins knows of some charity meal programs where the diners are treated with suspicion, and the people who run the programs seem inhospitable.

She says just the opposite is true at the Agape Community Center here, which serves hot, sit-down meals three days a week to people in need. "They let you know they really want you to come, and they have their arms open to you. They tell you, 'Thank you for letting us serve you,'" says the 59-year-old resident of Milwaukee's northwest side.

The home-style evening meals are a buzz of activity, with Agape staff and a rotating cast of volunteers dishing out healthful food to dozens of elderly and low-income people from the area — some of them drop-ins and many of them regulars like Killins. Everyone is welcome. The meal program has been at the heart of the Agape ministry since the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother congregation first served food to the poor from a makeshift dining area in a church in 1986. But the program has since evolved and expanded.

Now Agape occupies a two-story community center built in Milwaukee's working-class Thurston Woods neighborhood in 2000. Children come to the center for tutoring, to play and for the opportunity to go to summer camp; youth can connect with a mentor; adults can sharpen job skills and resumes; seniors can play bingo and socialize with their neighbors; and anyone can use the computer lab, sign up for a variety of classes and take advantage of periodic health screenings.

The vast majority of offerings are free to participants.

"We are small, but we accomplish a huge amount for this community," says Ann Bachrach, Agape's executive director. The center has 12 full-time staff, including neighborhood development, youth and social service experts. Agape relies on more than a thousand volunteers annually from Milwaukee-area churches, businesses, civic organizations and from Ministry Health Care. Ministry is Agape's parent company. Sponsored by the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, the system has 15 owned or affiliated hospitals, all of them outside of Milwaukee. Ministry pays about 60 percent of Agape's $1 million budget.

'On the edge'
Agape draws from a geographic area with a population of more than 21,000. About 60 percent of people age 16 and up in the catchment area work, and the median income of a resident in this area is $35,205, as compared to the national median wage of $26,363.55 (for 2010).

While the median wage here may seem high, nearly 60 percent of households in Agape's service area earn less than $39,000 per year, and about 19 percent of community members live below the poverty level. It's this large population of working poor and impoverished people — as well as those on a fixed income — that are of most concern to Agape, says Alden Luzi, the center's director of development.

"We work with families that are living on the edge — just making it month to month, scraping by," he says. "Many are one disaster away from poverty.

"We see ourselves as purveyors of hope" for them, he explains.

'In-between' families
According to Agape staff, many of the people who turn to the center have landed in difficult straits in recent years because of the flailing economy. Milwaukee was hard-hit by the recession, Bachrach says, with thousands of local manufacturing and other jobs disappearing during the downturn.

Once a worker is jobless, it's a real challenge competing for the limited number of open positions around Milwaukee, say Agape staff members. Kasandra Tarkington, a family resource specialist at Agape, says in some cases people's skills aren't up to par for the job market. Jessica Vaughn, Agape's programs director, says, "We've seen parents doing job searches who are close to tears because they just can't find anything. We've seen people who have lost good jobs and now don't have anywhere to go."

Vaughn adds that many people have had to change careers; many are working well below their skill levels.

Many of the underemployed and other low-wage workers do not make enough to keep up with the rising cost of living.

Vaughn refers to low-income, working-class families as "in-between" families because they don't qualify for most government aid programs, but they do not have enough income to function well.

Stress on the family
The economic pressures can put severe stress on families, particularly in the case of the 75 percent of families in the area headed by a single, working parent, the figure used in demographics compiled by Agape. In some cases, those households have another adult in them; sometimes, not.

Agape staff says some people in the neighborhood occasionally must choose between eating and paying the rent. Some parents unwillingly leave their children home alone while they go to work because they can't afford to pay a sitter. It's common for multiple generations of family members to move in together because they can't afford to live separately. For some families here, tensions escalate to the point of domestic violence. Some children are abandoned by one or both of their parents. While no socioeconomic group is inoculated against family discord and dysfunction, Agape staff say the problems of the working poor are amplified by the lack of resources available to help address the concerns.

Many of the kids Agape serves "come with much trauma in their lives," says Bachrach.

A safe haven
Dominic Foster, a youth services worker with Agape, says the center provides children respite from the issues they deal with. "It's like a safe haven." Kids can enjoy fun time, sports, games and activities with their friends and with staff.

While staff members play with the children, they also try to help them address the root of the problems they face while away from the center. Staff talk with the kids one-on-one or in small groups about handling conflict, avoiding alcohol and tobacco use, and dealing with bullies. They engage children in games and activities that build their coping skills.

Adults come to Agape to prepare for their GED test and to learn the steps to take to be better prepared for the job market. Staff direct adult clients to social service providers and other agencies that provide emergency help with rent, transportation or other expenses, or legal advice for avoiding foreclosure.

The focus for all clients, says Luzi, is on challenging people to take responsibility for their futures and making a sustainable change in their lives.

"We build off their strengths," says Vaughn.

Budget relief
While clients appreciate the wraparound services the Agape staff provide, the meal program remains the biggest draw.

Many meal participants cannot stretch their budgets to afford meals at home for an entire month, especially with food costs rising recently. That's been Killins' experience. The day care worker says the meals "really help me be able to manage my budget."

Seniors trying to stretch a fixed income also are enriched by the mealtime conversation. Says kitchen manager Katina Davis: "Elderly people want a companion, so just meeting people here gives them that companion."

Agape client Evelyn Jones, 48, is raising three of her grandchildren as well as a disabled son — all on her disability check alone. She says the meals at Agape are a considerable help, and she has received other food aid as well as clothes, toys, books and necessities for her grandchildren at Agape.

Jones says when she had trouble finding help from other agencies locally, Agape helped her. "I kept getting 'no', but whenever I called the center, I got 'yes.' They really do care," Jones says.

Agape's community meal program

According to information from Agape:

  • The center provides three meals a week, 52 weeks a year.
  • In 2011, Agape staff and volunteers served 14,535 meal participants.
  • In 2011, 1,542 volunteers provided a total of 5,140 hours of service through the community meal program.
  • Volunteers came from Ministry Health Care, local churches of various denominations, area companies, veteran organizations, community service programs, colleges and high schools.

A wide range of services

Among the services Agape provides:

  • Community meals
  • Summer lunch program for kids
  • Weekend backpacks of food for kids
  • Turkeys for families at Thanksgiving
  • "Stock boxes" of basics, meant to last a month, for qualified children and elderly people
  • After-school programs for kids, including homework help, tutoring, arts and crafts and computer activities
  • Teen programs, including sports, job counseling and classes and college prep workshops
  • A technology center
  • Adult programs, including job skills training, literacy help, GED preparation, college preparation, life skills training
  • Exercise equipment and classes
  • Nutrition and wellness classes
  • Wellness screenings
  • Referrals to and help accessing social services and other assistance programs
  • Senior adult activities, including field trips and bingo
  • Summer camp for children
  • Neighborhood development and beautification

The services are provided by Agape staff and volunteers as well as by community partners. Most are free.

Agape helps advance Ministry mission

Agape Community Center is part of Milwaukee's Ministry Health Care; and Ministry funds about 60 percent of Agape's $1 million annual budget. All of Ministry's 15 affiliated or owned hospitals are located more than 150 miles away.

The connection between Ministry and the community health center goes back to the source: both were founded by the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother. Ann Bachrach, executive director of Agape, said Ministry staff and leaders are encouraged to visit and volunteer at Agape, and their exposure to the center and its staff "gives them a broader-based view of what poverty is like." Staff from both Ministry's Milwaukee headquarters and from its locations around the state volunteer at Agape.

Many Ministry facilities are in rural areas, and so Ministry staff in those areas are familiar with the plight of the rural poor. But, when they meet Agape's working-class poor clients, they can learn about the struggles people face in an urban environment.

Karla Ashenhurst is a Ministry government affairs director who has volunteered at Agape for about seven years, including with the community meal program. She said that volunteering at Agape "opened my eyes to the bigger picture, beyond the sick who we treat at our hospitals. In health care, we are so focused on the sick, but there are healthy people who need care, too."

She said her experiences at Agape underscored for her the importance of preventive care. She noted that addressing people's concerns before they escalate can help cut back on more complex and extensive needs down the road.

Sr. Lois Bush, SSM, is Ministry's senior vice president for mission and culture integration. She was involved in the creation of Agape and she oversees Ministry's ongoing involvement. She said that budget strains on Ministry may make it difficult in the future to continue to support Agape, but, she adds, "we want to provide for them as long as we can as they touch those who are truly poor."

Sr. Bush said she hopes that "Agape can continue to make a difference in the neighborhoods that surround it, bringing hope to the people we serve, development to the youth that use the center and peace to the neighborhoods."


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.