Mark had been a long time advocate for education, but when he learned about a neighborhood in need, he knew that he was being called to serve.
I had no idea what to expect, just following my instinct, my heart. With my travel mug in hand, I went to my car, plugged the address in my GPS and started driving. I didn’t know exactly what I was driving towards, but forty minutes later I was parked on the side of the road in the middle of a low-income neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee, WI. To my right was a large unsightly abandoned warehouse. This is what I had come to see, an abandoned warehouse in a struggling neighborhood with a high crime rate and poor education choices for families.
The day before, I had been at an annual golf outing in a Northwest suburb of Milwaukee; a place that has a safe community and good schools. Now, as I turned my car off, I wondered if I was safe here. Do I dare to get out of my car, or do I start my car back up and drive away? I sat there, prayed for guidance, and found myself across the street knocking on the door of a little white house. There was someone inside I needed to meet.
As the door opened, Alfonso reached out his hand, introducing himself and welcoming me into the house, the place he called his office. He was surprised that I had come, even though he had been told I might. As we sat down to chat, I looked at him and said, “How can I help?” He was shocked, he hadn’t even given me all the information yet, but I didn’t need to know everything to know that I wanted to help. I knew that this community on the south side of Milwaukee needed a helping hand.
A year earlier, I had met a street missionary that roamed the worst neighborhoods of Milwaukee through the night. He had been an Hispanic gang member in his former life, even landing in jail. While incarcerated, he found hope for a better future and a faith that led him to become a missionary. As I got to know this man, he started introducing me to residents living on the south side of Milwaukee. As I spent time getting to know these people I learned what real poverty was. I met 5 to 25-year-olds who literally live from hour to hour, day to day with zero hope, zero dreams, zero expectations. Their only goal was to get through to the next day without getting raped, beaten, robbed, or forced into a gang or prostitution. As I listened to their struggles, I came to understand one major contributor to their poverty: poor educational support.
Kids were walking to school afraid for their safety. Families living below the poverty line struggled to provide food at the dinner table. This led to theft and gang violence. Kids were growing up using all their energy trying to survive instead of being able to thrive. They instead needed a place where they felt safe and could build positive relationships. If they had a positive learning experience, they could graduate high school, and go on to become positive leaders in their community. This could be the start to turning around their neighborhood, creating a better tomorrow for future generations.
I didn’t need Alfonso to tell me how much this community needed my help. All I needed to know, was how he planned on turning the lot with an abandoned warehouse into a safe learning environment that would help turn around an entire neighborhood.
Alfonso painted a picture of a beautiful school with colorful play equipment on the grounds. It would be a place that would draw the community together and build the neighborhood up from the inside. The school would offer the latest technology, sporting opportunities, and a top education that allowed teachers to help kids on an individual level. Beyond laying the foundation for a thriving education, they would also offer services to the community that would help empower families. Alfonso believed with all his heart that the children here could achieve amazing things with the right support - a safe, stimulating, and welcoming school environment that built strength of character, intellect, courage, and faith. His goal was to build a thriving continuous K4-12 school.
I was in awe of the vision for this new school, St. Augustine Preparatory Academy. Once again, I asked, “How can I help?” He told me that they had purchased the land across the street with the old warehouse. They planned to build the school right here, in the middle of the neighborhood, but they needed help raising the funds for building the school. The warehouse wasn’t a safe, welcoming place to hold a voucher school, so they needed to knock that down and rebuild.
As he talked about this neighborhood, I thought of my own childhood. I was lucky enough to have lived in a safe middle-class neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee. I had the freedom to walk with my friends to the park six blocks away from my home without worry for my life. We had bike paths to race on in the summer and ponds that froze over in the winter for ice skating. Food wasn’t a concern either; instead, we usually circled the neighborhood eating at each other’s homes while our moms sat together with a hot cup of coffee and shooed us back out the door. I realized how blessed I was to have grown up in a secure community. I knew instantly that I needed to be part of making his vision a reality, to pay forward all the blessings in my own life. If I could help these children grow up with even a fraction of the security and opportunities I had, I wanted to help.
It didn’t take much to convince my wife that we should help St. Augustine Prep Academy. A month later, our business — MK Cellular — provided the funds for Alfonso to host a neighborhood event with food and fun activities for the kids to do while he informed the parents of what this school was going to be and how it would benefit their families and the neighborhood as a whole. Families received the information with hope and various non-profits, civic leaders, and activists showed up in support.
It took two years of planning and fundraising, but the vision for this school finally became a reality. St. Augustine Prep Academy opened its doors for the 2017 school year and became a welcome community center for the neighborhood. In addition to providing a five-star education by loving teachers who cared deeply for their students, they aimed to educate the “whole family” with classes such as cooking healthy meals on a tight budget. They also offer families an on-site health clinic sponsored by a local hospital group. The school is continuing to grow and expand its reach within the community. In its first year, they had 300 plus elementary and early middle school kids in attendance. The second year attendance broke 800 students. The plan is to have the high school ready to welcome students by the time the first middle schoolers graduate.
It’s been over three years from that fateful day when I got directions to an abandoned warehouse. The man who gave me those directions was the founder of the school, Gus Ramirez. He was just another attendee at the golf outing who I had struck up a random conversation with. A conversation that grew from the usual formalities to talking about faith and giving, something we were both passionate about. That’s when he handed me the address. He told me that if I really wanted to help make a difference in an individual’s life, if I really wanted to help others know and experience hope, that I should take a drive down to this address and talk with Alfonso.
My wife and I continue to support St. Augustine Prep Academy. The impact this place is making on the south side of Milwaukee is incredible. We’ve visited the academy, seen the school in action, and met families and students with smiles on their face and hope in their hearts for a better tomorrow. When I drive into the neighborhood now, I’m no longer greeted by a rundown warehouse; but a big, bright school building with doors that welcome children into a safe learning environment that supports their families on a daily basis.
As told to Jaime Durheim