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Planting seeds to address childhood trauma in Milwaukee’s north side

Planting seeds to address childhood trauma in Milwaukee’s north side

Picture of James  Causey
[Photo by USDA via Flickr.]

It’s 7:23 a.m. on a sunny Saturday morning in June.

Twenty-three boys, ages 12 to 16, are already lined up outside the fence of “The Community Garden” on N. 9th and W. Ring Street, on Milwaukee’s north side.

They have come not only to pull weeds and put down new topsoil, but to also pick up broken bottles, trash and fast-food bags strewn across their neighborhood in one of the nation’s most disadvantaged ZIP codes – 53206.

Some of the boys are yawning. A few minutes later a car pulls up and a mother rushes three boys out of her car to get in line.

By 7:58 a.m. 52 African American boys are in line and others can be seen running down the block to take their places.

“If you’re late, I’m sending you home,” said Andre Lee Ellis, who started the community garden four years ago following a fatal shooting of a black man on his block.

It’s the start of the “The Community Garden” that will run the entire summer. Young people show up to work four hours and earn $20 and life skills. Ellis described the money as a tool to get the kids to the garden. The goal is to get them the mentoring they need to be successful and provide them with an outlet to talk about a lot of the pain and trauma that they have experienced.

Already this year, the garden has lost two young people, one to violence, the other to a drowning.

Youth violence is not unusual in 53206, a ZIP code noted for having the highest black male incarceration rate in the nation and one of the highest black male unemployment rates in the state, where more than five out of 10 men of working age are labeled unemployed or underemployed.

Nearly all of the youth who come to the garden weekly come from a one-parent household. Most don’t have a relationship with their fathers.

The ZIP code is also known for its high crime rate, something the boys have not been immune to.

Prior to the grand opening of the garden this summer, seven boys who were helping to get the garden boxes ready for the program had one thing in common: They all have had a gun pulled on them.

All also admitted that they have witnessed either someone beaten, shot, stabbed, attacked or robbed.

None of them received any mental health treatment for their trauma.

Most were angry and said the trauma of having a gun pointed at them and not having anyone to talk to made them want to, in turn, hurt someone else.

The garden program teaches discipline because to get paid the boys must show up on time every week, and they can’t be a minute late. The boys are paid from donations from the community, which Ellis solicits through his many social media connections.

For Ellis, the goal is to get youth to take their hands off the triggers of a gun and plant those same hands in the soil.

In 2014, a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation labeled Wisconsin as the worst state in the nation to raise a black child. The study’s findings were based on 12 child welfare indicators for African American children, including reading scores, graduation rates, children living in a two-parent household and poverty.

The study does not list trauma exposure as a category, but experts suggest that the level of trauma that many of the youth living in urban cities today is comparable to that suffered by soldiers returning from combat.

In one of the breakout sessions from the garden recently a group of a dozen youths talked about the brutal beating death of Dennis “Booman” King, 15. King was beaten and stabbed to death in May over allegations that he knew who stole a video game system. His body was set on fire and dumped in a vacant house less than two miles from the garden. King had worked in the garden the summer before.

Most of the teens have feared for their life and all said they did not have anyone to talk to about the trauma that they have been exposed to.

In one group, one child described seeing his cousin shot in the arm and having men search the house looking for family members with guns as he hid in a closet with his mother. Another youth talked about seeing one of his friends shot in the face.

While they all agree the garden provides a safe space to discuss their feelings, they also know that their traumas are not viewed in the same light as kids who may experience a tragedy in more affluent areas of the city.

The 2018 National Fellowship and grant will allow me to follow the boys from the garden throughout the summer. I’ll share their stories and the stories of others throughout the city and come up with viable solutions to get them connected with the proper resources.

I will also get the opportunity to see how Chicago operates its trauma unit in the hospital system. Since 2014, social workers have had desks in the ER units to ensure victims of violence receive wraparound trauma care. I would like to see how this program works and if it’s something that can be duplicated in Milwaukee.

I will also look at what other grassroots and nonprofits are doing to address childhood trauma and look at how these organizations operate and who they are reaching.

As a child who grew up just blocks away from the garden, this project is near and dear to my heart. I have personally lost many of my friends to gun violence and the prison system. Much of it can be attributed to the trauma they were exposed to as children.

[Photo by USDA via Flickr.]

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